LOS ANGELES (CN) – The Texas company that spilled oil off Santa Barbara had sued the county to fight installation of a simple shutoff valve that could have prevented the disaster, a class action lawsuit states.
A Plains All American Pipeline company line broke on May 19, spilling more than 100,000 of gallons of oil off Refugio Beach near Santa Barbara.
Lead plaintiff Stace Cheverez claims that Plains’ pipeline was the only one of its kind in Santa Barbara County without an automatic shutoff valve, and that rather than install the safety device, “as all the other pipeline owners in the area had done,” Plains had sued the county, claiming that “the county lacked the authority to force it to install an automatic shut-off system or inspect its pipeline.”
Cheverez’s attorney Robert Nelson said in a statement that the class action was filed “to repair the damage done to local fisherman and businesses, and to hold Plains accountable for all the harm it has wrought on the Santa Barbara community.”
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency and the state closed offshore areas to fishing as the oil slick spread to 9 square miles . State beaches were closed and habitat for endangered California Least Tern and Western Snowy Plover was threatened.
“These waters are home to hundreds of sensitive animal species, and serve as the backbone of the local economy. Tourists come to these beaches to enjoy the unspoiled sand and water. People support themselves and their families by harvesting fish and shellfish from these waters. All that has been damaged by this spill, and that damage will likely last for decades,” the complaint states.
Cheverez says that when Plains built Pipeline 901 in 1987, the county asked to inspect the welds with X-rays to ensure proper construction and asked the company to install the automatic shutoff valve for safety. Cheverez calls this a “routine” procedure.
But rather than cooperate, Plains sued the county in Federal Court, “arguing it lacked jurisdiction to regulate its pipeline design and installation.”
The complaint continues: “As a result, today Line 901 in the only pipeline in Santa Barbara County ‘whereby the county is preempted from monitoring and safety
inspections,” said Kevin Drude, director of the County’s Energy Division. Drude has publicly said that defendant’s employees rarely, if ever, attend monthly meetings that he holds to discuss safety concerns with all the pipeline operators under his jurisdiction.”
Plains has reaped $389 million on $2 billion in earnings by prioritizing profits over safety, and in addition to fouling the coast, has dumped the costs of its failure on the people of Santa Barbara County, the complaint states.
It adds: “The lax safety standards at Line 901 were not isolated incidents for defendant. Since 2006 it has been cited for more than 175 violations of safety requirements, which have caused nearly $24 million in property damage. Eleven of those incidents were in California. Defendant is one of the top four most-cited pipeline operators in the country.”
The beaches north of Santa Barbara are known as the Gaviota Coast. Its scenic beaches and opportunities for whale-watching attract thousands of tourists each year, and commercial fishing off the coast netted $6.5 million in 2009, according to the complaint.
Line 901 took 6.3 million gallons of crude oil a day between Gaviota and Los Flores on a 10-mile stretch past several state parks, including Refugio State Beach, where the rupture occurred. Professional clean-up crews and volunteers armed with nothing but shovels and buckets quickly responded to the spill, but Plains’ presence was notably absent during the first days, according to the complaint.
Despite volunteers’ efforts the oil continues to spread, claiming the lives of fish, birds and marine mammals and polluting the ocean with tar balls and “oil pancakes” that are drifting toward other state parks. Oil that sinks below the waves is smothering reefs, contaminating sea grass beds and killing lobsters, crabs, and other underwater species, according to the complaint.
“In Santa Barbara, those environmental impacts translate to profound economic impacts. In the short term, the oil from defendant’s ruptured pipeline has closed fishing grounds and shellfish areas, and caused canceled reservations from tourists who otherwise would be spending their money on hotels, restaurants, kayaking or surf trips, and fishing charters,” the complaint states.
Long-term impacts of the spill could last for generations, Cheverez says. He describes himself as a diver and nearshore fisherman who fishes for offshore species such as lobster, grass rockfish and sea urchin.
He says the oil spill has threatened his livelihood by contaminating the eel grass and kelp beds where the species spawn during the winter and by killing the sea urchins that cling to rocks close to shore.
Cheverez says he has been unable to fish or dive since officials closed fishing areas and two beaches, and the Santa Barbara County Health Department declared Refugio Beach a “Hazmat” zone.
“But for defendant’s oil spill, plaintiff Cheverez would have been or would presently be fishing the nearshore areas that are currently closed due to the spill,” the complaint states.
Calls to Plains’ media relations office redirected a reporter to a website for clean-up efforts at Refugio Beach. Further requests for comment were not immediately returned.
Cheverez seeks class certification, disgorgement of unjust profits and compensatory, statutory and treble damages for violations of the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act and of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, strict liability for ultrahazardous activities, negligence, unfair competition, and public nuisance. He also wants Plains ordered to restore fisheries affected by the spill and “to repair reputational damage done to Santa Barbara’s seafood industry.”
His is represented by Matthew Preusch with Keller Rohrback of Santa Barbara and Robert Nelson with Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein of San Francisco. Requests for comment were referred to the firms’ press release.
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