November 23, 2023
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Court delays hearing on Plains’ motion to seal Refugio oil spill transcripts


Santa Barbara Superior Court will review Plains All American Pipeline’s motion to seal the transcripts of its indictment from the Refugio oil spill on June 30, the same day of the arraignment. The hearing was continued on the morning of June 16.

Plains filed a motion on May 27 to seal all California grand jury proceedings, including all pleadings and exhibits, until the trial is over. Plains claims that the transcript may impede a fair and impartial trial as well as violate the privacy rights of grand jury witnesses and “unindicted individuals.”

Prosecutors have opposed the motion claiming Plains did not give the public sufficient time — at least 10 days before the initial June 2 hearing date — for the public to process the request. Grand jury transcripts may be sealed if they preclude the defendants’ right to a fair trial but, given the publicity, civil action and formal administrative reports since the May 19, 2015 spill, the release of transcripts “will create little or no additional risk of an unfair or partial trial,” states a counter motion filed by Keller Rohrback, Cappello & Noel and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, the law firms representing plaintiffs in a consolidated class action lawsuit against Plains.

“This is a case where the public interest in public records far outweighs any imagined prejudice to the defendant,” the motion filed on June 9 reads.

The indictment contains 46 counts, four of which are felonies. A federal investigation is ongoing.

The felony charges include discharging oil into state and federal waters in violation of the Clean Water Act, knowingly causing a hazardous substance to spill on any road, street, highway or railroad, and knowingly making false or misleading reports following the spill.

Plains and its environmental and regulatory compliance specialist James Buchanan are also on the hook for a failure to notify proper authorities in a timely manner. Buchanan is not charged with any felonies and faces a maximum jail sentence of three years.

Plains and Buchanan knowingly failed to immediately notify the California Office of Emergency Services and failed to call the National Response Center within an hour after the spill, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors estimated that Plains would pay between $1 million and $2.8 million in fines plus additional penalties and costs. Cleanup costs have totaled $150 million thus far, said Plains, estimating that the environmental disaster would cost about $269 million in its annual report. The company expects insurance to cover $186 million of those costs.

• Contact Alex Kacik at