Homeowner sues pipeline firm in Santa Barbara County oil spill

A Santa Barbara County homeowner is the latest party to file suit against the Texas owners of a pipeline that burst last month along the Gaviota coast, sending thousands of gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean.

The suit claims Alexandra Geremia's home just north of Refugio State Beach has been "bombarded" with a steady stream of tar balls and oil sheen from the spill that prevents her from walking on the beach.

Calling the clean-up efforts near the home "unsatisfactory," the suit claims the spill will hurt the value of Geremia's property for years to come. 

The corroded pipeline owned by Plains All American Pipeline ruptured May 19 and spilled roughly 101,000 gallons of crude along the coast near the picturesque state beach. About 21,000 gallons made its way from where the underground pipe is buried above U.S. 101 into a storm culvert and flowed into the Pacific.

Geremia is represented by the Santa Barbara law firm Cappello & Noël. The suit, filed Tuesday, is seeking class-action status and could potentially include between 3,000 and 25,000 beachfront property owners from Point Conception to the Mexico border, according to the firm.

Some tar balls from the spill have floated as far away as Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles County, state officials said this week.

The section of pipe that broke had worn down to 1/16 of an inch, and investigators found a six-inch crack along the bottom of the pipe, according to preliminary findings from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

"This is the way Plains operates. It plays fast and loose when it comes to safety and now property owners, wildlife, the environment and all those who enjoy the California coastline are paying a very high price,” said attorney A. Barry Cappello in a statement. 

Plains, a publicly traded company that transports oil from wells to refineries, has a market value of $18.8 billion and operates roughly 18,000 miles of pipeline in North America.

Mechanical failures on the company's network have contributed to more than a dozen spills that have released nearly 2 million gallons of hazardous liquid in the U.S. and Canada since 2004.

Santa Barbara fisherman Stace Cheverez also filed a lawsuit against Plains this month. He is seeking damages because the spill led to a ban on fishing in a 138-mile zone off the coast.

Tour guide Mark Hicks filed a suit last week claiming his business was cut nearly in half by the spill. Both are  represented by Seattle law firm Keller Rohrback and San Francisco firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein.

The pipeline company has set up a claims hotline.  

Workers have cleaned approximately 93% of beaches damaged after the oil spill, but response officials said there is no timeline for cleaning the last 8 miles of heavily oiled shore near Refugio State Beach.

El Capitan State Beach will open to the public Friday morning for the first time since the spill, state parks officials announced last week.

The cost to clean up almost 100 miles of beaches after a crude oil pipeline ruptured along the Santa Barbara County coast last month has reached about $92 million, said Patrick Hodgins, senior director of safety and security with the company, during a news conference Wednesday.

That figure does not cover damage claims paid out by the company or possible litigation costs.

The suits all assert that the spill could have been averted had Plains installed an automatic shut-off valve on the pipeline.

In a letter to U.S. lawmakers released Wednesday, Plains officials said the company would not add an automatic shut-off valve to the pipeline. Company officials said that one is not required and that adding it would present other potential dangers including sudden pressure surges that could cause a pipe to rupture.

Since the spill, 103 dead mammals and 192 dead birds have been collected, according to response officials. 

Follow @jpanzar 

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times