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California oil spill legal fight will likely span years

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It took little more than 48 hours from the moment a major oil spill was discovered off Southern California until the first lawsuit was filed against the Houston company that owns and operates the ruptured pipeline.

Finding the cause, who is to blame and if they will be held accountable will take much longer.

Several federal and state agencies are investigating in parallel as they seek the cause of the pipe rupture, how quickly pipeline operators responded and determine whether criminal charges are warranted.

CALIFORNIA AG INVESTIGATING OIL SPILL THAT FORCED HUNTINGTON BEACH TO CLOSE

Coast Guard Capt. Jason Neubauer said investigators are trying to find which ship among thousands of possibilities may have snagged the pipeline with its anchor in the past year, possibly during rough seas and high winds in January.

“We are not ruling out anybody at this time,” Neubauer said.

A possible leak off the Orange County coast south of Los Angeles was first reported Oct. 1. The spill was confirmed the next morning, and crude came ashore on Huntington Beach and then spread south to other beaches. Much of the coastline nearby was shut down more than a week, crippling businesses that cater to beachgoers and boaters.

The Coast Guard has estimated between about 25,000 gallons (94,635 liters) and 132,000 gallons (495,889 liters) spilled.

It could take a long time for investigators to comb through marine tracking data to see which ships passed over and anchored near the Amplify Energy pipeline running from platform Elly to the Long Beach port.

In this aerial image taken with a drone, beach goers are seen as workers in protective suits continue to clean the contaminated beach in Huntington Beach, Calif., Monday, Oct. 11, 2021. Huntington Beach reopened its shoreline this morning after water testing results came back with non-detectable amounts of oil associated toxins in ocean water, city officials and California State Parks announced. 

In this aerial image taken with a drone, beach goers are seen as workers in protective suits continue to clean the contaminated beach in Huntington Beach, Calif., Monday, Oct. 11, 2021. Huntington Beach reopened its shoreline this morning after water testing results came back with non-detectable amounts of oil associated toxins in ocean water, city officials and California State Parks announced. 
(AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

Investigations by federal prosecutors, the Coast Guard and several other federal agencies, including the National Transportation Safety Board, could lead to criminal charges, civil penalties and new laws or regulations.

“Criminal charges — when they’re warranted — you absolutely want to go after for all the reasons that you pursue criminal charges: accountability, deterrence, punishment,” said attorney Rohan Virginkar, a former assistant U.S. attorney who helped prosecute BP for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. “But really in these environmental cases, it’s about finding somebody who’s going to pay for the cleanup.”

Coast Guard investigators already have boarded two vessels and plan to track down others, many from overseas, Neubauer said. They will inspect anchors for damage and review all logs kept by the captain, deck officers and engineers, and the voyage data recorder — the equivalent of the so-called black box on airplanes. They will also interview crew.

A man rests as workers in protective suits continue to clean the contaminated beach in Huntington Beach, Calif., Monday, Oct. 11, 2021. Huntington Beach reopened its shoreline this morning after water testing results came back with non-detectable amounts of oil associated toxins in ocean water, city officials and California State Parks announced. 

A man rests as workers in protective suits continue to clean the contaminated beach in Huntington Beach, Calif., Monday, Oct. 11, 2021. Huntington Beach reopened its shoreline this morning after water testing results came back with non-detectable amounts of oil associated toxins in ocean water, city officials and California State Parks announced. 
(AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

Under some environmental laws, prosecutors only have to show negligence to win a conviction, Virginkar said. That could lead to a charge against a shipping company for anchoring outside an assigned anchorage or too close to a pipeline marked on nautical charts.

The accident occurred where huge cargo ships anchor waiting to unload at the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex — the nation’s largest.

Other investigators, including federal pipeline regulators, will focus on Amplify Energy, which owns the three offshore oil platforms and the pipeline.

They will review pipeline inspections for evidence of corrosion that might show it was being operated negligently and seek any information that records were falsified, which is what they found in the BP case, said attorney William Carter, a former federal environmental crimes prosecutor. A forensic analysis will be performed after the cracked pipe is retrieved from 100 feet (30 meters) of water.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA BEACH SET TO REOPEN AFTER OIL SPILL

The Amplify pipeline was required to have thorough inside and outside checks on alternating years. The most recent showed no issues requiring repairs, according to federal documents.

Prosecutors will also scrutinize control room data to see if there were pipeline pressure drops that would have indicated a possible leak and what was done to respond, Carter said.

The company could be prosecuted if it realized there was a leak and did not quickly call state and federal hotlines to alert the Coast Guard, fish and wildlife officials and multiple other agencies that respond to spills, Carter said.

Prosecution for an untimely response is fairly common in spills, he said.

“The elements necessary for that violation are: I knew there was a release, and I didn’t immediately report it — regardless of the cause,” Carter said. “I mean, it could have been lightning or an earthquake did it and you knew it, and you didn’t report it in a timely fashion.”

FILE - In this Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, file photo, cleanup contractors deploy skimmers and floating barriers known as booms to try to stop further oil crude incursion into the Wetlands Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, Calif., after an oil spill off Southern California. Finding the cause of the spill, who’s to blame and if they will be held accountable could take a long time. 

FILE – In this Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, file photo, cleanup contractors deploy skimmers and floating barriers known as booms to try to stop further oil crude incursion into the Wetlands Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, Calif., after…



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2021-10-12 12:01:43

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