The parent company of the Ventura oil firm that spilled 84,000 gallons of heavy crude into McGrath Lake near Oxnard last December agreed Wednesday to pay $600,000 to settle a criminal complaint brought by local prosecutors.
Berry Petroleum executives pleaded no contest Wednesday in Ventura County Municipal Court to a single misdemeanor charge of failing to report the spill, effectively ending the criminal side of the lengthy court case.
But the plea does not insulate the company from an ongoing civil case being prepared by the state attorney general's office.
Ralph Edmonds of Ventura, the chief foreman on duty during the spill that lasted four days, also pleaded no contest Wednesday through his attorney to a misdemeanor charge of illegally releasing oil into marine waters.
He was ordered to perform 320 hours of beach cleanup and serve 18 months probation.
Both no contest pleas amount to guilty pleas, although they cannot be used as evidence against either Berry Petroleum, which owns Bush Oil, or Edmonds in the civil case now being pieced together by state regulators.
They also eliminate the possibility of prison time for Berry Petroleum executives or Bush Oil Co. workers, a threat made by local prosecutors in the early days of the two-month cleanup.
The settlement money will be divided among Ventura County courts, the district attorney's office and two environmental enhancement funds operated by the state to restore damaged habitats.
Under the plea agreement, the district attorney's office will receive more than $200,000 of the penalties--reimbursement for attorney fees and prosecution costs.
Another $300,000 will go to the state Department of Fish and Game's Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, which will fund various environmental projects. About $27,000 will be given to the state treasury's environmental fund, and the courts will get about $73,000.
The agreement does not include potential costs to Berry for the government's response and investigation of the massive spill, which closed seven miles of beaches, killed hundreds of birds and soiled the environmentally sensitive McGrath Lake.
Nor does it preclude federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency or the U.S. Coast Guard from proceeding with criminal charges against Berry principles or employees.
Glen M. Reiser, the Oxnard attorney retained earlier this year by the district attorney's office to prosecute the case, said the settlement was a good deal for Ventura County, which suffered significant environmental damage because of the spill.
He said Berry Petroleum failed to adequately ensure the safe transport of its crude oil, and that the company was "absolutely" cutting corners to save money.
"Their economic performance was not as substantial as they wanted it to be at that time," Reiser said of Delaware-based Berry Petroleum.
For instance, he said, the company opted to use a long-abandoned pipeline to move its oil across Harbor Boulevard instead of trucking it, the prior lease operator's method of transport.
But Berry officials accused the district attorney of denying the company a fair opportunity to prove its innocence. Vice President Raymond Hatch said the company would have preferred to take the case to trial, but said it was cheaper to settle.
"This case presents a situation in which the almighty dollar blurred the vision of those in government who are obligated to seek the truth and do justice," Hatch said.
Hatch and his lawyers complained at a news conference Wednesday that the district attorney never conducted metallurgical tests on the ruptured pipeline, thereby never proving Berry's negligence.
"It is unthinkable that our government officials can assert to its citizens that they have 'investigated' this accidental pipeline rupture when they have refused to test the actual pipeline," Hatch said.
But Reiser said it would have been a waste of taxpayer money to spend $10,000 or more testing the ruptured pipe.
"Every indication we have leads to the inescapable conclusion that this leak was the result of excess pressure in a corroded, unprotected pipeline," he said.
As for the monetary fines, Reiser said: "If enhancing the environment is bowing to the almighty dollar, then I'm on the wrong planet."
Attorneys for Berry Petroleum already have filed claims with at least six local and state law enforcement agencies, claiming that those agencies failed to respond to earlier reports of the spill, which was not discovered until last Christmas morning.
The claims say that visitors to McGrath Lake in the days before Christmas told state park rangers and other officials about oil sightings, but that investigators neglected to check out those reports.
But prosecutors said that apparent oversight does not alleviate Berry's liability, in part because they failed to report or adequately repair another leak in the same pipe on Dec. 16--five days before the more serious spill.
"The company was in control of the operations," said Gregory W. Broce who heads the environmental unit at the district attorney's office. "This whole event would not have occurred if the company had done what it should have done."
Meanwhile, investigators may order further cleanup at the site.
Broce said he found clumps of oil just underneath the sand at McGrath Lake last month. He displayed photographs taken in July that show thick globs of what appears to be crude oil just beneath the surface at the shoreline.
"You can't dig up the whole beach," he said. "Mother Nature has to take its course."
But Fish and Game attorney Stephen L. Sawyer, who is assembling the civil case against Berry Petroleum, said he might order another cleanup effort "very soon" after viewing the photographs for the first time Wednesday.
"What we may do is go back into a cleanup mode and order Berry to go back in," Sawyer said.
Berry maintained Wednesday that its cleanup efforts, which cost the firm $8.3 million, were complete and effective in restoring the habitat.
Company officials offered photographs taken last month of endangered Western snowy plovers returning to the area as proof that the lake and beach are clean.