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Last week, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney and California Attorney General obtained guilty verdicts against Plains All American Pipeline, L.P. regarding the 2015 Refugio Oil Spill near Santa Barbara, CA. By way of background, on May 19, 2015, a pipeline operated by Plains to transport crude oil ruptured on shore just north of Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, California, causing over 140,000 gallons of crude oil to be released from the pipeline, which spilled crude oil into the Pacific Ocean and across coastal beaches. At trial, testimony revealed that over 100,000 gallons of crude oil were never recovered.
Plains was convicted of one felony for unlawfully discharging oil into state waters and eight misdemeanors for the following: failing to timely call emergency response agencies; violating a county ordinance banning oil spills; and killing marine mammals, protected sea birds, and other sea life. Sentencing will be held on December 13, 2018.
According to a statement by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the verdict “should send a message: If you endanger our environment and wildlife, we will hold you accountable. At the California Department of Justice, we will continue prosecuting corporate negligence and willful ignorance to the fullest extent of the law.” (Emphasis added.)
As noted in Law360 (sub. req.), the verdict “underscore[s] the importance of pipeline companies taking their maintenance, inspection and compliance duties seriously, especially in states like California which have strict requirements and liability where knowledge or intent isn’t necessary to sustain criminal convictions.” Furthermore, the conviction specifically as to failure to notify emergency responders “underscores the importance of that duty and that companies must ensure their policies leave no room for error.” The relative rarity of criminal environmental convictions for corporations means this case is one to watch is it moves towards sentencing and/or appeals.