Two days after the ruinous May 19 oil spill that fouled fisheries, sea birds and beaches, Santa Barbara County Supervisor Janet Wolf and her chief of staff drove to the county's emergency operations center to get the latest intelligence and offer support on the evolving disaster.
But they were stopped at the gate by a man asking Wolf who she was and whom she worked for. She identified herself and threw the same questions back at the gatekeeper:
" 'Who do you work for?' And he says, 'I work for Plains.' "
"I was appalled," said Wolf, current chair of the county Board of Supervisors.
Plains All American Pipeline operates the pipeline that burst, sending crude gushing into the sea, and Wolf couldn't believe that an employee of the Texas-based outfit was acting as a guard at a county facility.
When Wolf was cleared to enter the building, she didn't hesitate to express her outrage.
"I ran into one of the Coast Guard folks and I said this is wholly inappropriate, to have our polluter telling me or anyone else that they can't come into the building," said Wolf.
The supervisor's concerns about the role of Plains in the ongoing drama have not waned, especially given what she's learned about the fox-in-the-henhouse nature of oil spill protocol.
It turns out that the polluter, in cases like this, often joins with federal, state and local officials as a member of the unified command response team. The idea is that the company's expertise and knowledge of its own facilities can be useful, and that it has a responsibility to assist.
A spokesman for the unified command told me Plains has been a cooperative partner in the process.
But Wolf and others, including State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), think Plains has been allowed to take on too big a role in managing the response to the crisis it caused, with county input all but ignored.
"They're very much involved in the decision-making, if not running the show," Jackson said. That, she adds, rubs some people wrong in Santa Barbara, with its history of oil calamity and little effort by Big Oil to win people's trust.
Despite frequent mishaps in its massive operations, Plains does know how to do one thing extremely well — turn crude into gold. The company reported $878 million in profits on $43 billion in revenue in 2014. Motley Fool, an investment guide, has advised investors not to fear the levy of fines or a multimillion-dollar cleanup, because "these costs are a drop in the ocean when compared to the company's massive cash flow and deep liquidity."
Equally massive is the number of safety and maintenance infractions Plains has rung up — 175 since 2006. That's fifth-highest among more than 1,700 pipeline operators. Mechanical failures on Plains' thousands of miles of aging pipeline and facilities have contributed to more than a dozen spills in Canada and the U.S. since 2004, with the release of 2 millions gallons of hazardous liquid.
That's who's at the table in discussions about the damage from the Refugio spill, the cleanup and what to tell the media about all of the above.
As to that last point, a Plains employee signed off on a plan to "target" reporters deemed "neutral to positive" and invite them to private media briefings so that they could "help tell the progress story."
The Santa Barbara Independent's Kelsey Brugger got her hands on that leaked document and broke the story three weeks ago. Brugger was one of six reporters on the list, as was The Times' Javier Panzar. The document included biographical sketches of each reporter, along with assessments of their work, which is more than a little creepy.
The reporters look solid to me, by the way. But the spill is not a private matter, the details of which self-proclaimed guardians can spin and spoon feed to a select few journalists. It's an ongoing public mess that has damaged natural resources and hammered commercial fishermen, marine tour operators and others whose livelihood is tied to that beautiful stretch of Pacific Coast.
A strategy to handpick reporters and try to control the news is unethical enough. But having Plains in on the deal makes it all the more imperative for the media to keep asking what they don't want us to know.
Wolf and Jackson, among other public officials, got a good start on the needed interrogation at a hearing Friday in Santa Barbara. Among the questions they fired at Patrick Hodgins, director of safety and security:
Was Plains unaware of the extensive corrosion in the pipeline that burst, and if so why?
How could the company, in good conscience, resist a call for an automatic shutoff valve, even though this is the only pipeline in Santa Barbara County without one?
Why did it take so long to identify the source of the tar balls that washed ashore?
And why, after shutting down the busted line at 11:30 a.m., did Plains fail to alert regulators of the leak until 3 p.m., when the oil had already begun to spread?
Hodgins claimed that a shutoff valve was not required on that particular line and could cause damage if unintentionally activated, a viewpoint that was immediately disputed by a county official.
As for the other questions, Hodgins danced and dodged, to the frustration of his inquisitors, particularly during a discussion of a finding by a federal agency that the pipe in question had significantly weakened.
"The first time I heard anything about the corrosion is what I read in the papers," said Hodgins. He said he was "shocked" by that news.
"That's what's of interest to me — that you're shocked," said Jackson, who along with her colleagues has introduced legislation to tighten regulatory measures. "Why do I know more about what caused this than you do?"
It's no accident that there's a deep mistrust of Big Oil, Jackson told me.
They've earned it.