Oil company settles criminal cases in California spill

An oil company has pleaded guilty in federal court to negligently discharging crude off the Southern California coast when its underwater pipeline ruptured last year

ByAMY TAXIN and DON THOMPSON Associated Press
September 8, 2022, 8:03 PM

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- An oil company on Thursday pleaded guilty in federal court to negligently discharging crude off the Southern California coast when its underwater pipeline ruptured last year, a spill that closed miles of shoreline and shuttered fisheries.

Meanwhile, Houston-based Amplify Energy and two of its subsidiaries agreed to enter no contest pleas to killing birds and water pollution in court on Friday in a settlement with the county and state officials stemming from the same October 2021 oil spill.

Amplify’s pipeline broke off the Orange County coast, spilling about 25,000 gallons (94,600 liters) of oil into the Pacific Ocean. The rupture closed beaches for a week and fisheries for more than a month, oiled birds and threatened local wetlands.

“Amplify unequivocally hit the snooze button. They knew they had a leak. Their leak detection system detected a leak,” said Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer. “Over and over, they kept ignoring it. That is criminal and that is why they’ve been charged.”

Spitzer and state Attorney General Rob Bonta announced the filing of six misdemeanor state charges against the company and two of its subsidiaries from the spill.

The company will plead no contest to all six charges and pay $4.9 million in penalties and fines as part of a settlement, Spitzer said. Bonta called the penalty “historic,” believed to be the largest state misdemeanor criminal fine ever in Orange County.

The company will also be placed on 12 months of probation and make changes designed to avoid future spills, including increased inspections and technology to detect leaks, Bonta said.

Martyn Willsher, Amplify’s president and chief executive officer, said in a statement that the company's agreement with state and federal officials “further reflects the commitments we made immediately following the incident to the communities and environment impacted by the release.” He said the company "remains committed to safely operating in a way that ensures the protection of the environment and the surrounding communities.”

In state court, the criminal charges include discharging oil into state waters, failing to immediately report it to state officials, and four counts of killing birds. The company’s failure to properly sound the alarm led to the expansive spill that shut down beaches and led to the recovery of 116 live and dead birds soiled by oil, Bonta said, “and the full economic impact of the oil spill is still emerging.”

In federal court in Santa Ana, Amplify and its subsidiaries each pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor charge on Thursday, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles. The plea came after the companies agreed with federal prosecutors to pay a $7 million fine and nearly $6 million in expenses incurred by agencies including the U.S. Coast Guard.

In the federal agreement, Amplify also agreed to install a new leak detection system for the pipeline that ferried crude from offshore platforms to the coast. They also said they'd train employees to identify and respond to potential leaks. Federal authorities said the company and its subsidiaries failed to respond to eight leak detection alarms over a 13-hour period that should have alerted workers to the October 2021 spill.

Federal, state and local officials have said the plea agreements and fines will help hold companies accountable. But Miyoko Sakashita, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's oceans program, said steeper criminal penalties should have been imposed and called for a halt to offshore oil drilling altogether.

“The penalties against the company are relatively modest, given the absolutely unacceptable harm this spill did to California’s coast,” Sakashita said in a statement.

Amplify contends that two ships dragged their anchors across the pipeline and damaged it during a January 2021 storm, but the company wasn't notified about the dragging until after the spill. Without this damage, Amplify has argued that the spill would not have happened.

The announcement of the state deal led to unusual and unexpected praise between Bonta, a progressive Democrat running to retain his office, and Spitzer, a Republican who has faced significant controversy in recent months.

Bonta called Spitzer “a true fighter and champion for Orange County," while Spitzer was effusive in his praise for Bonta, who faces a Republican opponent in November.

“To have an attorney general who is so deeply committed to protecting the community and our environment is a very, very big blessing to me as a district attorney,” Spitzer said.

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Thompson reported from Sacramento.

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