Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline has been convicted of negligence in a 2015 oil spill disaster that devastated beaches and killed wildlife for miles along the California coast. The spill is being called the worst California coastal spill in 25 years and resulted in a Santa Barbara County jury finding the oil company guilty on nine counts of criminal negligence.

Sentencing is slated for December 13 and is expected to be given in the form of fines, though it’s unknown how large the fines are expected to be.

If You Endanger Our Environment and Wildlife, We Will Hold You Accountable

Plains was convicted of negligence to maintain its oil pipelines and also found guilty on eight misdemeanor charges including killing marine mammals and protected sea birds. The incident crippled fishing activities and tourism business for several months, causing massive revenue loss for the tourism and fishing industries.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said that Plains displayed gross recklessness and irresponsibility over the coastal oil spill. He stated the oil company conducted itself in a criminal manner and must face the music.

“Today’s verdict should send a message: if you endanger our environment and wildlife, we will hold you accountable,” he said.

Photo of a lobster covered in oil after the Santa Barbara oil spill.

A lobster covered in oil resulting from the Santa Barbara oil spill. Image via YouTube

Plains responded in a statement that they accept full responsibility for the accident but noted that the jury did not find any knowing misconduct by the company. They stated that they believe the jury erred on the conviction of negligence and that its operations conform to or exceed legal and industry standards. Plains will be evaluating their legal options and respond appropriately to the jury’s verdict in due course.

Plains Turned off a Warning Alarm for Pipeline Leaks

Plains originally faced 15 charges after federal inspectors discovered that at least 123,000 gallons (465,000 liters) of crude oil gushed into the waters as a result of severe ruptures from Plains’ corroded pipeline. The oil wreaked havoc at the Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, northwest of Los Angeles.

According to investigators, Plains engineers made preventable errors, failed to detect the pipeline rupture in time and when they did, technicians failed to respond appropriately.

Operators at over 1,000 miles away at a Texas control room had turned off an alarm that would have alerted them to the spill. Because the alarm was off, operators restarted the leaking pipeline after it had shut down, causing a massive environmental disaster and crippling the region for months.

The spill took place two weeks before Memorial Day and resulted in local beaches and campgrounds shutting down for two months afterward during the popular summer season. The pipeline also carried oil to refineries from seven offshore rigs, which have all been idle since the spill. One platform operator, Denver-based Venoco, declared bankruptcy because of the spill and its inability to operate.

Plains owned up to their negligence and paid for the oil cleanup, putting the cost at about $335 million. But this does not detract from the possibility of fines from the U.S. government as well as federal class-action lawsuits from aggrieved parties including owners of beachfront properties, fishing boat operators, and oil workers who lost jobs as a result of the spill.

The pipeline that leaked is still shut down but Plains has applied for a permit to build a new pipeline in its place.

Kristen Monsell, from the Center for Biological Diversity, said that Plains can’t be given “a second chance to spill again.”

“It’s time to get dirty, dangerous drilling out of our oceans, out of our coastal areas and out of our state,” she said.


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