- Associated Press - Friday, May 20, 2016

LOS ANGELES (AP) - The one-year anniversary of an oil spill on the California coast was no celebration for the company responsible for the corroded pipe that sprung a leak and dumped more than 120,000 gallons of crude. The occasion was marked by action from state prosecutors and federal regulators, who concluded investigations of Plains All American Pipeline and the spill blamed for killing scores of birds and sea lions and soiling pristine Santa Barbara County beaches.

Here are some things to know about the spill and action taken in the past week.

PIPELINE TO THE SEA

The May 19, 2015 spill was discovered just after noon by Santa Barbara County firefighters investigating reports of a strong petroleum stench near Refugio State Beach.

Once the source was located more than an hour later - and about 2½ hours after the rupture - firefighters tried in vain with shovels to stop oil from flowing through a culvert under a highway toward the ocean. The culvert was dammed around 3 p.m. after additional equipment and more people were brought in.

Initial estimates put the spill at just over 100,000 gallons with about a fifth of that volume reaching the ocean. Plains later upped the estimate to about 142,000 gallons, though federal regulators said 123,000 gallons were released.

Tar balls washed ashore 100 miles away in Los Angeles County and more than 220 birds and about 140 marine mammals, mostly sea lions, died.

ACCIDENT OR A CRIME?

A Santa Barbara County Superior Court grand jury indicted the company Monday on 46 criminal charges.

State and county prosecutors said Plains faces up to $2.8 million in fines if convicted of all charges, which include four felonies for spilling oil in state waters and three dozen misdemeanor counts of harming wildlife. The company and an employee were charged with misdemeanor counts of failing to quickly notify state emergency officials.

Texas-based Plains said the spill was an accident not a crime and it would vigorously fight the charges.

SERIES OF FAILURES

The federal agency overseeing the safety of interstate pipelines said Thursday that the company failed on “multiple levels” to prevent, detect and respond to the incident.

“The investigation found that numerous factors contributed to the release, including the company’s failure to protect the pipeline from corrosion, as well as the failure to detect and respond to the pipeline rupture once it occurred,” said Marie Therese Dominguez, administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

A lengthy report detailed events leading to the spill as operators in a remote control room in Midland, Texas, failed recognize a spill occurred and didn’t quickly shut down the pipeline. A controller even restarted the pipeline after it had shut down during the spill.

A Plains employee initially doubted the oil came from its pipeline because it was isolated from the ocean by U.S. Highway 101. But the company had failed to note in emergency plans that the culvert could provide a path to the sea, the report said.

The company declined to comment on the report because of ongoing investigations and litigation.

PIPELINE SHUTDOWN

The pipeline remains shut down under federal orders and won’t restart until the agency is confident it is safe, Dominguez said. Plains said there’s no timeline for restarting it.

The company has begun repairing two sections, but other work has been put on hold because of litigation, said Peter Cantle of the Santa Barbara County Planning and Development Department. A lawsuit by landowners claims an easement for the pipeline isn’t big enough to allow the repair work.

Cantle said he is not sure if Plains will repair the pipeline or replace it with a higher grade pipeline, which he said the company has discussed.

“Do you try to put lipstick on the pig?” Cantle said. “Can they bring it back to operational capacity with sufficient integrity to make it a go? That’s what they’re looking at.”

Meanwhile, seven offshore platforms are idle because the pipeline transported crude from them to refineries.

NEW LAWS

The spill inspired legislation aimed at preventing oil spills, minimizing damage and speeding cleanups.

Three bills signed into law last year by Gov. Jerry Brown would require annual pipeline inspections by the state fire marshal and installation of best spill-control technology, such as automatic shut-off valves.

The pipeline, once regulated by the state marshal and Santa Barbara County, came under federal jurisdiction in 2013 because it’s part of a larger interstate network of pipes.

Because of litigation against the county by the original owner, it was also the only pipeline in the county that didn’t have automatic shut-off valves.

Federal legislation related to pipeline safety is also pending.


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