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Texas Oil Company Faces Criminal Charges Over Southern California Spill


A Texas-based oil company faces criminal charges in connection with a spill that happened last year in California. An estimated 140,000 gallons of crude oil spilled onto beaches and into the ocean along an environmentally sensitive area near Santa Barbara. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In total, Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline and one of its employees face 46 criminal charges in this sweeping indictment. The company is facing four felony counts in connection with the spill. The announcement by California's attorney general caps a year-long investigation. On May 19 of last year, a corroded underground pipeline ruptured and heavy crude oil dumped onto the pristine Refugio State Beach, some of it into the ocean. Federal and state authorities spent weeks trying to contain the tarry mess. Oil blobs were spotted as far as 100 miles to the south.

In a statement, Plains All American called the criminal charges unwarranted, pointing to the $150 million dollars the company has spent so far on response and cleanup. By oil spill standards, the Refugio incident was relatively small. But Linda Krop, chief counsel with the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center, says the environmental damage was extensive and is still being assessed. She's pleased about the indictment.

LINDA KROP: If the pipeline had been built with better technology, such as automatic shutdown systems, it would've shut down immediately and a very small amount of oil would have spilled.

SIEGLER: But Krop thinks there's plenty of blame to go around.

KROP: Had the pipeline been inspected more frequently and more thoroughly, it probably would've been shut down before the spill even happened.

SIEGLER: The spill occurred in a protected channel that's often dubbed the North Galapagos for its biodiversity. Two hundred seabirds and mammals, including sea lions and dolphins, were killed. It's not yet clear whether federal charges are also coming, but California is seen as having tougher environmental laws than the federal government. Plains All American Pipeline says it will vigorously defend itself against the charges. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Culver City, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.