Pipeline firm found guilty of criminal charges in Santa Barbara oil spill

Santa Barbara residents walk the oil-coated shore at Refugio State Beach looking for wildlife to rescue after a ruptured pipeline spilled barrels of crude oil in 2015. A jury returned guilty verdicts Friday against Plains All American Pipeline (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

For the record: An earlier version of this story, published Sept. 7 at 9:25 p.m., contained multiple errors, which have now been corrected. It said that a jury had found Plains All American Pipeline guilty of criminal charges for knowingly causing the 2015 oil spill off Refugio State Beach. The jury ruled that the company had knowingly caused or "should have known" that it caused the spill. The article also incorrectly stated that the jury found the firm guilty of knowingly filing a false or misleading report to the state. In addition, the article stated that 140,000 gallons of crude oil entered the ocean. Not all of the oil entered the ocean. The article also reported that the firm said it dismissed the employee named in the indictment. The firm said the charge against the employee was dismissed; he remains at the company.

A Houston-based pipeline firm has been found guilty of criminal charges that it knowingly caused or should have known it was causing a catastrophic oil spill off Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County in 2015, killing marine mammals and sea life.

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After a four-month trial, a jury Friday found Plains All American Pipeline guilty of one felony count of causing the spill by failing to properly maintain its highly pressurized pipeline. The firm also was found guilty of eight misdemeanor counts including failing to report the spill immediately, illegally discharging crude oil and killing marine mammals, protected sea birds and other sea life.

“Engaging in this kind of reckless conduct is not just irresponsible — it’s criminal,” state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “Today’s verdict should send a message: If you endanger our environment and wildlife, we will hold you accountable.”

Volunteers and staff of the International Bird Rescue use a toothbrush and soap to clean a brown pelican that was rescued from an oil spill off Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County. (ROBYN BECK / AFP/Getty Images)

In a statement, Plains said it “continues to accept full responsibility for the impact of the accident” but believed the jury erred in returning the guilty verdict on the felony count.

“We intend to fully evaluate and consider all of our legal options with respect to the trial and resulting jury decision,” Plains said.

The firm is scheduled to be sentenced in December.

A corroded section of the 10.6-mile pipeline ruptured in May 2015, releasing more than 140,000 gallons of crude oil, according to the county. The slick coated a stretch of the Gaviota coast and forced the closure of Refugio and El Capitan state beaches. Hundreds of sea birds and mammals, many coated in crude, washed up in the area in the weeks following the spill.

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In a statement, Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Joyce E. Dudley said the case was a “David vs. Goliath” battle against a large firm with teams of lawyers and thanked prosecutors for being “relentless in seeking justice for our people, our animals and our environment.”

“The visual crown jewel of our paradise is our beaches and mountains,” she said. “This spill killed our marine life, harmed not just our beaches and ocean, but also our businesses.”

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