Plains All American Pipeline indicted in Santa Barbara oil spill

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A Houston-based pipeline company has been indicted in California on 46 criminal charges stemming from a major oil spill last year that forced beach closures and fouled miles of shoreline near Santa Barbara, prosecutors said on Tuesday.

Crew members inspect the oil spill damage at Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California May 22, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn/File Photo

The indictment returned by a Santa Barbara County grand jury on Monday accuses Plains All American Pipeline LP of four felonies, including knowingly discharging a pollutant into state waters, county District Attorney Joyce Dudley told a news conference.

The bulk of the remaining 42 misdemeanor counts contained in the indictment relate to wildlife losses blamed on the May 19, 2015, rupture of an oil pipeline that federal inspectors have found was badly worn by corrosion, officials said.

The latest tally of wildlife deaths linked to the spill includes 221 seabirds - mostly brown pelicans, common murres and Pacific loons - and 138 marine mammals, principally California sea lions, state officials said.

Both the company and one of its employees, James Buchanan, 41, an environmental and regulatory compliance specialist, were charged with misdemeanor violations of failing to provide timely notice of the spill to authorities.

Dudley declined to discuss the charges further until the indictment is unsealed, likely within a few weeks. An arraignment is set for June 6.

Attorney General Kamala Harris said the company, if convicted, faces penalties of $1 million to $2.8 million. Buchanan could face up to three years in prison if found guilty.

Plains said criminal prosecution was unwarranted, adding it has spent more than $150 million on spill response, cleanup and related efforts.

“Plains believes that neither the company nor any of its employees engaged in any criminal behavior at any time in connection with this accident,” it said.

Harris said the indictment sends the message that “any company that is operating in our state and transporting crude oil and doing it in a way that is irresponsible and in violation of the law will be held accountable.”

Federal authorities reported 1,700 to 2,500 barrels of crude gushed onto the shore and into the Pacific when Plains’ underground pipeline, Line 901, burst along a coastal highway about 20 miles (32 km) west of Santa Barbara. The company later revised its upper estimate of the spill to 3,400 barrels.

Experts say the spill ranks as the largest to hit the ecologically sensitive but energy-rich coastline northwest of Los Angeles since a massive 1969 offshore blowout dumped up to 100,000 barrels into the Santa Barbara Channel.

The 2015 spill occurred at the edge of a national marine sanctuary and state-designated underwater preserve teeming with marine mammals, birds and fish. The area also hosts nearly two dozen offshore oil platforms.

Editing by Matthew Lewis and Jonathan Oatis