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Oil Firm, Foreman to Plead No Contest in Spill : Courts: Berry Petroleum crude leaked into McGrath Lake for four days last year in the county’s worst such incident.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Both the oil company and foreman responsible for Ventura County’s worst pipeline spill ever have agreed to plead no contest to separate misdemeanor charges in Municipal Court next week, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

Under the settlement to be formalized in court next Wednesday, attorneys for Berry Petroleum and production official Ralph Edmonds will not admit any criminal wrongdoing.

But the no-contest pleas are equal to guilty pleas, except that they cannot be used against the defendants in establishing any civil liability related to the criminal case.

State regulators are still piecing together a civil case against Berry that could result in further penalties.

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“Berry has requested that we not disclose any of the details until the time of the arraignment,” said Glen M. Reiser, the special prosecutor retained earlier this year by the Ventura County district attorney.

“The judge has to order the stipulation into effect on the 17th,” he said. “So it’s not a done deal until the gavel hits the bench.”

Berry Petroleum operated an underground pipeline along Harbor Boulevard near Oxnard that ruptured Dec. 21, 1993, and spilled 84,000 gallons of heavy crude into the wetlands at McGrath Lake for four days before being noticed.

Thousands of gallons were then pushed into the Pacific Ocean, forcing the closure of seven miles of coastline and necessitating a two-month cleanup effort. Hundreds of birds coated with oil died as a result of the spill.

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The company will plead no contest to a single misdemeanor charge of failing to notify regulatory officials about the leak, Reiser said.

The penalty will be limited to a “substantial” monetary fine to be distributed to state and local environmental restoration funds, Reiser said. He refused to say how much the fine would be until the court appearance.

Attorney Larry L. Hines, who represents Berry Petroleum, declined to discuss the settlement Wednesday, saying his clients would wait until next Wednesday “to give the company’s version of these events.”

But the oil company already has filed claims against six local agencies for failing to respond to early reports of the spill. The leak was not discovered for four days, when federal inspectors noticed a sheen of oil on the ocean west of McGrath Lake on Christmas morning.

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Several area law enforcement agencies had been alerted to the spill at least a day before and failed to respond, the company claims.

Edmonds, the production foreman on duty at the time the pipeline broke, will plead no contest to a misdemeanor charge of illegally releasing oil or petroleum products into a state waterway, the prosecutor said.

He will face “an agreed-upon punishment, which is not insignificant” when he is sentenced sometime after he enters his plea, the prosecutor said.

Edmonds still works for Bush Oil, the Berry Petroleum subsidiary that operated the ruptured pipeline. He did not return phone calls Wednesday.

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His attorney, Lou Carpiac of Ventura, is traveling out of the country and could not be reached for comment. John C. Orr, a partner in Carpiac’s law firm, declined to discuss the agreement Wednesday.

Reiser said Edmonds is a former Navy seaman who has worked for Bush Oil for about five years. It is his first job supervising an oil production facility. He sold production equipment for several years previously, Reiser said.

The prosecutor said Edmonds’ relative lack of experience probably contributed to his alleged failure to notice that tens of thousands of gallons of oil never reached the storage tank it was being pumped into.

Because they view Edmonds as ultimately responsible for the leak, prosecutors insisted that he be charged separately in the case. The oil company agreed in June to plead no contest to a single charge, although prosecutors would not specify whether it was a misdemeanor or felony.

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“The idea of (Edmonds) proceeding to trial all by himself was not too enticing,” Reiser said.


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