Feeling duped, Ventura blasts company for restarting pipeline after oil spill

In a scathing letter, the city of Ventura has asked the company responsible for a nearly 30,000-gallon oil spill last month to shut down the pipeline involved in the leak and explain how it was reopened on Thursday with scant notice.

The city also surprised Crimson Pipeline LLC on Friday with a legislative subpoena, which demands the company turn over by mid-July a raft of documents about the pipeline’s maintenance, inspections and memos from the June 23 spill. 

The impetus for the city’s more forceful tactic appears to be a community meeting on Thursday with state and company officials, which left the impression that Crimson would give advance notice about the pipeline’s reopening, according to a letter to the company from City Manager Mark Watkins. 

But the idea of an extended restart for the pipeline quickly evaporated.

On the night of the meeting, Crimson Pipeline had reopened the 10-inch pipeline, which shuttles oil from Ventura County to refineries in the Los Angeles Basin. 

“To find out that Crimson was flowing oil into the pipeline as the meeting was taking place, and your assertion that none of the Crimson personnel at the meeting knew of these actions is extremely disturbing,” Watkins wrote. “It is evident that the information given to me and our residents during the neighborhood meeting was not transparent or forthcoming.”

Tim Gallagher, a spokesman for Crimson, said the company representative at the meeting did not know that the state fire marshal’s office and a third-party inspector were in the process of examining the pipeline and certifying it as safe.

“We thought the public meeting was on health and safety and the cleanup effort,” Gallagher said. “There was no attempt to dupe anybody and no attempt to trick anybody.”

He chalked up the subpoena and the city manager’s caustic letter to a lack of experience in handling oil spills. 

“I don’t blame Ventura for being a bit naive. It’s their first time and they’re concerned about health and well-being,” Gallagher said. But the green light from the state fire marshal’s office and the outside inspector warranted reopening the pipeline, he added.

“Crimson has a contractual obligation to move oil through that pipeline as soon as it is safe,” Gallagher said. “Customers could have sued Crimson for failing to deliver the product.”

A valve on the pipeline was reported leaking about 5:30 a.m. on June 23, sending up to 29,400 gallons of oil into Prince Barranca, a dry arroyo more than a mile from the coast. The oil was halted about a half-mile down the gorge, but not before it left pools of thick crude and a coat of tar on rocks, riverbeds and plants.

So far, crews have found three rats, a gopher snake, a raccoon and a rabbit dead near the area of the spill, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Oiled Wildlife Care Network is determining whether the deaths were caused by the oil spill, state officials said.

Residents reported noxious fumes that made some feel lightheaded and dizzy. Air monitoring in the week after the spill showed low levels of volatile organic compounds, but the samples were far below the minimum risk levels developed by the state.

Colorado-based Crimson Pipeline is responsible for the cleanup effort and deployed contractors to lay down large, absorbent booms in the barranca in an effort to mop up the crude. Pools of oil were vacuumed by contractors, and the rest was to be picked up by flushing spots with water and sucking the fluid up. 

“They are in a much more difficult phase right now where the oil is in the granular part of the creek,” Gallagher said. 

State, federal and local officials are helping to oversee the cleanup, which is paid for in full by the pipeline company.

The cause of the spill remains under investigation.

The lead agency in the probe is California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. In a letter to residents, the team of state agencies and the company that are responding to the spill and cleanup said that the actual pipeline “was not a factor” in the oil spill. At the time, the pipeline had been closed for routine maintenance and the valve that was the source of the oil was replaced the day before the spill.

Still, Ventura’s city manager has asked the company to shut down the pipeline and provide more detail about testing and repairs. The subpoena asks for documentation on inspections, maintenance and detection of the oil spill by July 18, calling it an “administrative investigation" into the spill and cleanup. 

Gallagher said the company would try to comply with the city’s demands but said it would not turn off the pipeline. A meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, when he said the company hoped to repair its relationship with the city.

For more news in California, follow @MattHjourno.

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