July 21, 2024
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Plaintiffs file for class certification in Refugio oil spill lawsuit


A class of plaintiffs who claim to be injured by the Refugio oil spill filed for class certification.

After Plains All American Pipeline’s corroded Line 901 ruptured on May 19, 2015 and spilled an estimated 123,000 gallons of oil along the Gaviota Coast, 21,000 gallons of which seeped into the ocean, fisheries were closed, oil production was shut down, small businesses lost revenue and coastal properties were tarnished, according to the consolidated class-action civil lawsuit.

Named plaintiffs include Keith and Tiffani Andrews, Baciu Family LLC, Robert Boydston, Captain Jack’s Santa Barbara Tours, Morgan Castagnola, Crab Cowboys, The Eagle Fleet, Zachary Frazier, Mike Gandall, Alexandra Geremia, Jim Guelker, Jacques Habra, iSurf, Mark and Mary Kirkhart, Jamie Klein, Richard Lilygren, Hwa Hong Muh, Ocean Angel IV, Pacific Rim Fisheries, Sarah Rathbone, Community Seafood, Southern Cal Seafood, Santa Barbara Uni, TracTide Marine Corp., Wei International Trading and Stephen Wilson.

Monterey Park, Calif.-based Wei International buys sea cucumbers from Santa Barbara fishermen. Its gross profits decreased about $18,000 from December 2014 to November 2015. The company spent more than $500,000 buying sea cucumbers in 2015 but it was forced to throw many away because of the poor quality and buyers cancelling orders, Weihai Zhuang said.

“I believe the oil spill damaged the reputation of the product my business sells, deterring existing and potential customers. I also believe the spill damaged the sea cucumber population my business depends on,” Zhuang wrote in a declaration. “I understand that other businesses like mine have been similarly affected by the oil spill, and I am asking the court to let me represent those businesses in this lawsuit.”

The commercial fishing company Ocean Angels said the squid fishing since the spill has been “terrible” compared to prior years, plummeting about two-thirds from 2014 to 2015. The oil spill may have seriously and permanently harmed squid populations in the region, owner David Tibbles said in a declaration.

Eagle Fleet is another commercial fishing business that primarily fishes sablefish along the Central Coast. Aside from decreasing the value of its fishing permits, the company’s gross income declined from $331,363 to $167,443 from 2014 to 2015. And while Eagle Fleet posted a total profit of $19,430 in 2014, it recorded a loss of $100,728 in 2015, owner Thuy Trinh Nguyen said.

The plaintiffs retained UC Santa Barbara Bren School of Environmental and Science Management professor Hunter Lenihan to assess the damage to the marine ecosystem.

“Releases of hydrocarbons in the marine ecosystem like the spill that occurred near Refugio State Beach cause significant, acute short-term and chronic long-term impacts on the marine species that exist in those ecosystems, and on the commercial fishing industry that relies on those species,” Lenihan wrote in a declaration.

Ronald MacLeod is a managing member of Baciu Family, which owns about 10 acres of undeveloped beachfront real property west of Refugio State Beach. Recently, MacLeod talked to some lobster divers who said they saw lots of oil floating near the sea floor. He saw about 40 dead lobsters while walking on the beach, MacLeod said.

Santa Barbara County iSurf surf school said its instructors saw “oil waves” at Mondos Beach about 45 miles north of Refugio, Miramar Beach near Montecito and Campus Point near Goleta and had to cancel lessons following the spill.

Wilson, a Santa Barbara County oil rig manager, was on ExxonMobil’s Platform Harmony when the spill occurred. He managed a crew of 60 to 100 workers until Parker Drilling, which contracts with Exxon, cut the staff to four employees along with their pay soon after the spill, Wilson said. He was eventually laid off in November and hasn’t found work since.

“While the local oil and gas facilities remain shut down and the offshore platforms are not operating or producing crude, workers like me cannot find comparable work in the area,” Wilson wrote in a declaration.

Lilygren, who lost his job last July at Freeport McMoRan’s Platform Harvest offshore rig, said there was a similar decline in workforce for Freeport contractors.

TracTide Marine Corp., which provides supplies and fuel to offshore oil platforms including Exxon and Freeport, has lost more than $900,000 in gross revenues from the spill to July 2016, said vice president Joshua Belchere.

The class certification was filed on Aug. 22 in federal court. Cappello & Noël, Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, Keller Rohrback, and Audet & Partners seek appointment as class counsel.

“We assembled experts on fisheries and the maritime environment, oil pipeline safety, tourism patterns and real estate valuations to gauge the economic impact of the oil spill on the area’s real property, fishing industry, tourism business and the local oil industry where hundreds of oil workers have been laid off because of the spill,” Barry Cappello of Cappello & Noel said in a news release. “The proposed class is made up of these subclasses whose livelihoods were negatively affected or whose shoreline property was sullied.”

In related news, Plains filed another motion last week to be released of full liability in exchange for final payments in its claims process. The plaintiffs plan to oppose the motion.

A U.S. District Court ordered Plains in May to stop misleading claimants seeking to recover interim damages from the spill and invalidate releases that preclude them recouping further compensation.

• Contact Alex Kacik at akacik@pacbiztimes.com.