Texas pipeline company charged in California oil spill

US prosecutors say Amplify Energy and subcompanies were negligent, including failing to respond to eight leak detection system alarms

Birds wade in an oil spill as workers clean the contaminated shoreline at Newport Beach, California. AP
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A Houston-based oil company and two subsidiaries were indicted on Wednesday for a crude spill that fouled southern California waters and beaches in October, an event prosecutors say was caused in part by failing to properly act when alarms repeatedly alerted workers to a pipeline rupture.

Amplify Energy Corp and its companies that operate several oil rigs and a pipeline off Long Beach were charged by a federal grand jury with a single misdemeanour count of illegally discharging oil.

Investigators believe the pipeline was weakened when a cargo ship’s anchor snagged it in high winds in January, months before it ultimately ruptured on October 1, spilling about 94,600 litres of crude oil into the ocean.

US prosecutors said the companies were negligent in six ways, including failing to respond to eight leak detection system alarms over a 13-hour period that should have alerted them to the spill and would have minimised the damage. Instead, the pipeline was shut down after each alarm and then restarted, spewing more oil into the ocean.

Amplify blamed the unnamed shipping company for displacing the pipeline and said workers on and offshore responded to what they believed were false alarms because the system was not functioning properly. It was signalling a potential leak at the platform where no leak was occurring, the company said.

The leak, in fact, was from a section of undersea pipe 6.4 kilometres away, Amplify said.

“Had the crew known there was an actual oil spill in the water, they would have shut down the pipeline immediately,” the company said.

The Associated Press first reported last week that Amplify’s leak detection system was not fully functional. At the time, the company declined to explain what that meant.

Meanwhile, the US Coast Guard said on Wednesday that it was responding to a report of a sheen off the coast of Bolsa Chica State Beach but had not determined the source and planned to fly over the scene on Thursday morning.

The area is in the same general vicinity as that of the October leak, although the pipeline is currently out of service.

In that case, the first pipeline rupture alarm sounded at 4:10pm on October 1, but the leak was not discovered until well after sunrise the next morning and reported about 9am.

Citizens on shore called 911 to report the strong smell of crude that first afternoon, and an anchored cargo vessel reported seeing a large sheen on the water before sunset.

The Coast Guard said it was too dark to go out and search for the spill by the time they received a report about it. They went out after sunrise, finding it about the time the company reported it.

Days after the spill, Amplify chief executive Martyn Willsher had refused to answer questions at news conferences about the timeline surrounding the spill and a report that an alarm at 2:30am on October 2 alerted controllers about a possible spill. He maintained that the company did not learn of the spill until a boat saw a sheen on the water at 8:09am that morning.

Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said the indictment validates the stance of residents who had detected the spill a day earlier and reported it.

“It’s terrible that they basically lied to the community during the press briefings and caused people to believe that what they saw with their own eyes or smelt or knew was actually not true,” she said.

“What we know now is that the company knew this, and the alarms went off like they were supposed to, and nobody did anything.”

Even after the eighth and final alarm sounded, the pipeline operated for nearly an hour in the early morning, prosecutors said.

Pipeline safety advocate Bill Caram said the indictment paints a picture of a reckless company.

“I understand there are false positives on leak detection systems, but this is our treasured coastline,” said Mr Caram, director of the Bellingham, Washington-based Pipeline Safety Trust.

“The fact that they kept hitting the snooze button and ignoring alarms, stopping and starting this pipeline and all the while leaking oil in the Pacific Ocean is reckless and egregious.”

Prosecutors also found that the pipeline was understaffed and the crew was fatigued and insufficiently trained in the leak detection system.

The spill came ashore at Huntington Beach and forced a weeklong closure of the city’s beaches and others along the Orange County coast. Fishing in the affected area resumed only recently, after testing confirmed that fish did not have unsafe levels of oil toxins.

If convicted, the charge carries up to five years of probation for the corporation and fines that could total millions of dollars.

Updated: December 16, 2021, 5:14 PM