LOS ANGELES – (AP) – It took just over 48 hours from when a major oil spill was discovered off the coast of Southern California until the first lawsuit was filed against the Houston company who owns and operates the ruptured pipeline.
Finding out the cause, who is to blame and whether they will be held accountable will take much longer.
Several federal and state agencies are investigating in parallel as they investigate the cause of the pipe rupture, how quickly pipeline operators responded and determine whether criminal charges are warranted.
Coast Guard Captain Jason Neubauer said investigators were trying to find which ship among thousands of possibilities could have snagged the pipeline with its anchor over the past year, possibly in rough seas and high winds in January .
âWe’re not excluding anyone at the moment,â Neubauer said.
A possible leak off the coast of Orange County, south of Los Angeles, was first reported on October 1. The spill was confirmed the next morning and the crude landed on Huntington Beach and then spread south to other beaches. Much of the nearby coastline has been closed for more than a week, crippling businesses that cater to beachgoers and boaters.
The Coast Guard estimated between about 25,000 gallons (94,635 liters) and 132,000 gallons (495,889 liters) spilled.
Investigators could take a long time to scan maritime tracking data to see which vessels have passed and anchored near the Amplify Energy pipeline from the Elly platform to the port of Long Beach.
Investigations by federal prosecutors, the Coast Guard and several other federal agencies, including the National Transportation Safety Board, could result in criminal charges, civil penalties, and new laws or regulations.
“Criminal charges – when they are justified – you absolutely want to prosecute for all the reasons you bring criminal charges: liability, deterrence, punishment,” said attorney Rohan Virginkar, a former deputy US prosecutor who helped to sue BP for Deepwater. Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. âBut really in these environmental cases, it’s about finding someone who is going to pay for the cleanup.
Coast Guard investigators have already boarded two ships and plan to track down more, many from overseas, Neubauer said. They will inspect the anchors for damage and examine all logs kept by the captain, deck officers and mechanics, as well as the voyage data recorder – the equivalent of the so-called black box on airplanes. They will also interview the crew.
Under some environmental laws, prosecutors need only be negligent to get a conviction, Virginkar said. This 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 happened when huge freighters docked awaiting unloading at the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, the largest in the country.
Other investigators, including federal pipeline regulators, will focus on Amplify Energy, which owns the three offshore oil platforms and the pipeline.
They will look at inspections of the pipeline for evidence of corrosion that could show it has been negligently operated and look for any information that indicates the records have been tampered with, which they found in the BP case, said. attorney William Carter, former federal environmental crimes prosecutor. A forensic analysis will be performed after the crack has been recovered within 100 feet (30 meters) of water.
The Amplify pipeline was to be thoroughly tested internally and externally over a period of years. The most recent showed no issues requiring repair, according to federal documents.
Prosecutors will also look at control room data to see if there were any pressure drops in the pipeline that indicated a possible leak and what was done to respond to it, Carter said.
The company could be sued if it realized there was a leak and did not promptly call state and federal help lines to alert the coast guard, fisheries and marine officials. wildlife and several other agencies that respond to a spill, Carter said.
Lawsuits for an untimely response are quite common in spills, he said.
âThe necessary elements for this violation are as follows: I knew there had been a release, and I did not immediately report it, no matter what the cause,â Carter said. “I mean, it could have been lightning or an earthquake and you knew it, and you didn’t report it in time.”
Plains All American Pipeline was convicted of this felony for a breach in an overland pipe that sent tens of thousands of gallons of crude spilling onto a Santa Barbara beach and into the ocean in 2015.
In the Amplify pipeline leak, federal regulators said a low pressure alarm at 2:30 a.m. on October 2 alerted control room operators on the Elly platform to a possible leak. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said the line was not closed until 6:01 a.m. and the Coast Guard was not notified until 9:07 a.m.
Amplify CEO Martyn Willsher declined to answer questions about the reported pressure drop, including the fact that the first report to authorities made on behalf of the company listed the incident at 2:30 a.m. insisted that the company was not aware of the spill. until a company inspection boat sees the glow at 8:09 a.m.
Carter said lawyers likely told Willsher not to discuss the timeline because he could incriminate himself.
If accused of failing to report the spill promptly, the company could also face charges for allowing the oil to harm endangered species and other wildlife that may have been saved by faster response.
Federal prosecutors have five years to lay felony charges. Carter said they would likely wait until they knew the cost of the damage before demanding restitution.
Federal penalties for failure to notify authorities can reach $ 500,000 or double the total damages. State penalties could go up to $ 10 per gallon spilled that was not collected.
Regardless of whether a ship is ultimately the cause of the spill, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 requires whoever spills the oil to pay for the cleanup, said attorney James Mercante, a maritime lawyer. Amplify may, however, subsequently seek to recover its losses from other responsible parties.
Mercante said the law was passed in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in Alaska in 1989 to speed up cleanup without pointing fingers.
âThe spirit and the goal is to clean up the oil and then fight it,â said Mercante. âIt will take years and years and years to be resolved. “
So far, two class action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of a disc jockey who hosts seaside events in Huntington Beach and a surf school that operates in the town known as ” Surf City USA “.
These cases will depend heavily on government investigations and will take years to unfold.
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