A federal grand jury on Wednesday charged three companies with criminal negligence in connection with the oil spill that tarred the Orange County coast in early October.
The tripartite indictment alleges that Amplify Energy Corp. and two subsidiaries, Beta Operating Co. and San Pedro Bay Pipeline Co., illegally dumped oil into federal waters from their Huntington Beach pipeline.
Although the size of the spill was initially overestimated at more than 100,000 gallons, the amount – recently estimated at nearly 25,000 gallons – was “an amount that may be harmful to the public health, welfare and the environment of the United States”. to the fees.
The oil spill, the exact cause of which is still unclear, has once again urged the government to take more aggressive action against the aging oil platforms and infrastructure on the southern California coast.
In a careful description of the events beginning on the afternoon of October 1, the indictment provides a scene of confusion and confusion as crews working on an offshore oil rig attempted to respond to a series of alarms from the leak detection system while they were still trying to do so by maintaining the flow of oil through the pipeline. Those alarms, the indictment said, began almost 16 hours before the time when the CEO of Amplify Energy said the company was aware of a leak.
Charges against the three companies include allegations that the 17.3 mile underwater pipeline that runs from a manufacturing and processing platform called Elly to Long Beach Harbor was operated by “an understaffed and exhausted crew” who ” not “received sufficient training on the pipeline’s automated leak detection system.”
“I am outraged by the total failure of Amplify Energy to do its job,” said MP Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach). “Your absolute negligence has wreaked havoc on our coastal community. This was not an uncommon incident – someone here is to blame and justice is served. “
Amplify Energy owns Elly, Beta Operating Co. operates Elly, and San Pedro Bay Pipeline Co. operates the pipeline.
No person named in the indictment, and the negligent draining of oil charge, a misdemeanor, has a maximum legal penalty of five years probation for a corporate defendant and fines that can run into the millions.
“This is the same charge as Exxon Valdez,” said William W. Carter, a former federal environmental crime attorney, citing the oil tanker that ran aground in Alaska and resulted in one of the largest oil spills in US history. “This is a smart way for the federal government to act.”
Successful prosecution of the case would affect the three companies’ ability to defend themselves on more than a dozen civil lawsuits filed on behalf of homeowners, corporations, and other groups. Plaintiffs include owners of coastal properties in Laguna Beach, a surf school in Huntington Beach, a bait and fishing tackle shop in Seal Beach, and several groups of seafood sales companies.
Following the October oil spill, beaches and harbors from Huntington Beach to Dana Point were closed for a week and a half when cleanup began.
In addition to the federal indictment, Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer said he has started a criminal investigation.
The federal incitement makes it clear that the crews overseeing the pipeline became aware of a problem in the system sooner – and more consistently – than their companies initially reported.
“It is very worrying that Amplify has lied to officials, community and reporters so many times,” said Katrina Foley, Orange County supervisor representing the affected area. “Many of us have questioned the truthfulness of what we said from the start. You will be held accountable. You can no longer hide from their lies. “
The National Response Center, a US Coast Guard emergency response center that monitors and responds to environmental emergencies, said it received an alert from Amplify Energy at 9:07 am on October 2 stating that “crude oil has been released.” Oil near its pipeline “near Elly.
Martyn Willsher, President and CEO of Amplify Energy, told the Times in October that the company first learned of the leak in the pipeline at 8:09 a.m.
“If we knew anything on Friday evening, I promise you – we would have stopped all operations immediately,” Willsher said at the time.
However, the indictment tells a different story.
Prosecutors alleged that operators repeatedly failed to respond to a leak detection system that activated eight times in a 12 hour period. The first alarm occurred at 4:10 p.m. on Friday, October 1, just as some Orange County residents were beginning to smell the distinctive smell of petroleum near the coast.
The alarms repeated themselves almost every hour until 11.30 p.m. During that time, according to the indictment, operators responded to five of the alarms by “turning off and restarting” the flow of oil through the pipeline. As a result, “during this time, oil was pumped through the damaged pipeline for more than three hours”.
Then, despite the 11:30 p.m. alarm and the work of the crew members performing a manual leak test, oil was pumped through the pipeline for another three hours until “about 2:27 a.m.”
Eventually, despite the eighth and final alarm at 5:28 am the next day, the crews allowed oil to flow through the pipeline for almost an hour after a boat they had contacted failed to “vent an oil outlet in the middle in the dark to locate the pipeline ”. the night.”
Company spokeswoman Amy Conway said Wednesday that workers on offshore platforms and workers on onshore pipelines for Amplify Energy were trying to fix bugs in the leak detection system they believed was sending false positives.
The leak detection system “repeatedly and incorrectly reported a potential leak” on the company’s processing platform where no leak was visible, she said. “If the crew had known that there was actually an oil spill in the water, they would have shut down the pipeline immediately.”
When the crew spotted a glow in the water on the morning of October 2, Conway said, the company launched its plan to respond to oil spills. Less than 24 hours later, oil began to wash up on beaches and marshland along the Huntington Beach coastline. Within a week, the kilometer-wide slick of Laguna Beach was drifting.
Coast Guard investigators believe the spill was caused by a ship’s anchor hit the pipeline during a storm in January. The Coast Guard said it had identified and boarded two container ships, the MSC Danit and the Cosco Beijing, in Long Beach Port and named their owners as interested parties for the investigation.
According to U.S. Coast Guard Captain Jason Neubauer, who leads the maritime investigations, divers have surveyed the pipeline and are planning to lift the damaged section from the ocean floor to examine the break more closely.
No date was given for the removal.