December 2, 2022
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Charges, lawsuits Plains’ Refugio oil spill legacy


Workers donned protective gear to clean up the Refugio oil spill.

Workers donned protective gear to clean up the Refugio oil spill.

One year later, the Refugio oil spill remains in the headlines amid rising costs and the first of what could be a series of criminal misconduct charges.

Plains All American now faces a 46-count indictment at the state level for a May 2015 incident that spilled 21,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean. The validity of the charges was reinforced on May 19 by a scathing report from federal regulators.

In a long-awaited development, U.S. officials concluded the company mismanaged maintenance of Pipeline 901 and then bungled the response when the line broke. The report raises troubling questions about the integrity of Pipeline 903, which runs from Santa Barbara County to Kern County.

Meanwhile, ranchers, fishermen and other small business owners impacted by the spill experienced a frustrating dilemma – take cash from Plains but waive their rights or dig in for a long fight via litigation with uncertain future results. A court has since ruled that those who settled did not give up the right to pursue further claims.

Whether criminal charges are coming from the Justice Department remains an open question. But it seems clear that one viable strategy for the Obama Administration is to run out the clock and block reopening the pipelines until a new administration takes over next January. The administration has sharpened its focus on environmental protection during its last years in office.

For Plains, the record looks terrible. According to pipeline regulators, the company’s initial response to a low-pressure alarm was to consider it a low-priority event. The report says the line ran for 35 minutes and they tried to restart it before shutting it down.

On the question of maintenance, Plains failed to meet standards and just 13 days before the spill a test showed up to 86 percent corrosion. At the time of the rupture, it was operating at just 56 percent of maximum pressure.

The Refugio oil spill’s legacy is going to be a long and expensive trip to the courts. Environmentalists can celebrate the fact that much of Santa Barbara County’s oil production remains shut in because it can’t find a market but that, too, comes at a cost in jobs and tax revenue.

Port of Hueneme going strong

One piece of tri-county infrastructure that does work is the Port of Hueneme.

A new report by Martin Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in studying the impact of ports, shows that jobs are growing along with economic impact at the Ventura County facility.

The port found that direct and indirect jobs related to the port soared from 10,226 in 2012 to 13,632 in 2015, a gain of 25 percent. More than 7,000 of those jobs come from importers and exporters in the Ventura County area.

Auto processors and agribusinesses are among the primary job generators. Cargo activity at the port now totals $1.5 billion.

The gains at the Port of Hueneme are impressive.