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Huntington Beach oil spill pipeline operator pleads no contest, agrees to pay nearly $5 million

 A photo of a duck covered in oil from last year's Huntington Beach oil spill is displayed during news conference.
A photo of a duck covered in oil from last year’s Huntington Beach oil spill is displayed during news conference held Thursday at the Orange County district attorney’s office.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)
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The company operating the pipeline that ruptured last October, causing at least 25,000 gallons of crude oil to spill off the coast of Huntington Beach, pleaded no contest in Orange County court Thursday to six criminal charges.

Amplify Energy Corp., based in Houston, and subsidiaries Beta Operating Co. and San Pedro Bay Pipeline Co. were charged with misdemeanor counts by Orange County and state prosecutors this week. They included pollution and failing to immediately report the oil spill in state waters to the Office of Emergency Services.

Additional misdemeanor charges included two counts of unlawful taking of a fully protected bird — a brown pelican — and two counts of taking a migratory nongame bird, a Brandt’s cormorant.

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Under the plea deal, Amplify pays nearly $5 million in fines and penalties, split between the state and county governments.

Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer speaks during a Huntington Beach oil spill press conference.
Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer speaks during a Huntington Beach oil spill press conference on Thursday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta said Thursday during a news conference at the district attorney’s office in Santa Ana that the plea deal is believed to be the largest state misdemeanor criminal fine in Orange County history.

He said Amplify will also be placed on probation for a year and that it must train and instruct employees to immediately notify the appropriate agencies of potential spills. Amplify must also install and improve advanced leak detection systems and conduct safety measures including biannual visual inspections of its pipeline.

“The oil spill that occurred off the coast of Orange County had a devastating toll on our wildlife,” Bonta said. “It also had a human impact, on small businesses near the shoreline, restaurants, ice cream shops, surf shops and commercial fishermen who all rely on California’s waters and beaches for their livelihood. They were all impacted ... and today, subject to the court’s approval, we are announcing a meaningful, significant resolution and ensuring accountability and justice.

“These are strong penalties, but let’s be clear here. This spill should not have happened in the first place. Amplify’s leak detection system worked, and Amplify failed to take appropriate action. No reports of a leak or potential leak were made for over 16 hours.”

Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer said Amplify “unequivocally hit the snooze button.

California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta speaks during a Huntington Beach oil spill news conference.
California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta said Thursday during a news conference at the district attorney’s office in Santa Ana that the plea deal is believed to be the largest state misdemeanor criminal fine in Orange County history.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“They shut down the pipeline, they started it up again, and there were seven more instances where the alarm notified them that there was a leak,” he said. “Snooze, snooze, snooze, snooze, snooze, snooze, snooze. Over and over, they kept ignoring it. That is criminal, and that is why they’ve been charged.”

On Aug. 26, Amplify and its two subsidiaries agreed to plead guilty to violating the federal Clean Water Act and agreed to pay a $7.1-million criminal fine and compensate federal programs about $5.8 million. Those pleas were also entered in federal court on Thursday and accepted by Judge David O. Carter.

The state also has an ongoing civil case against Amplify, Bonta said.

Amplify President/CEO Martyn Willsher said in a statement Thursday that the company has continued to cooperate with the various agencies investigating the incident.

“We believe this resolution, which is subject to court review and approval, reflects the commitments we made immediately following the incident to impacted parties and is in the best interest of Amplify and its stakeholders,” Willsher said. “We are committed to safely operating in a way that ensures the protection of the environment and the surrounding communities.”

California Department of Fish and Wildlife Chief of Enforcement David Bess speaks.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife Chief of Enforcement David Bess speaks during Thursday’s news conference.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The news conference was also attended by Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley, Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Irvine) and state Sen. Dave Min.

In July, Foley and her fellow supervisors accepted nearly $1 million from Amplify to cover expenses related to the emergency response and cleanup efforts.

Crude oil covers the sand at the mouth of the Santa Ana River in Newport Beach following the oil spill.
Crude oil covers the sand at the mouth of the Santa Ana River in Newport Beach on Oct. 3, 2021. An offshore pipe line burst the day before, leaking oil that washed up along the Newport Beach and Huntington Beach shorelines. Seagulls were seen with oil on their feathers while an Orange County Public Works team created a berm at the mouth of the Santa Ana River to stop any additional oil from entering upstream.
(Raul Roa)

“I think there’s a strong message sent that we will not tolerate polluters, and they will be held accountable,” Foley said Thursday. “It’s an important message to hear because the consequences of allowing oil companies to manage their equipment, to not manage their employees well, are dire to all of us. The coast is filled with lots of wildlife, but also this is a tourism community reliant on the coastal economy.”

City News Service contributed to this report.

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