Santa Barbara- S County

Jury to soon decide Refugio Oil Spill trial

Closing arguments begin in Refugio Oil Spill trial

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Point by point, a prosecutor tried Thursday to convince a Santa Barbara jury an oil company should be convicted on charges related to the devastating oil spill at Refugio State Beach on May 19, 2015.

The case against Plains All-American has been heard by the jury over four months in Santa Barbara Superior Court.

As closing arguments began in the case, Deputy Attorney General Brett Morris told jurors "Plains All American knew pipeline 901 was headed for a failure." 

901 is the name of the pipeline that ruptured just above Refugio Beach, causing more than 142,000 gallons of oil to spill into the ocean, fouling the beach, water and local wildlife.

Morris told jurors Plains employees knew "that leaks from line 901 would reach the Pacific Ocean" and were "trained for responding to an abnormal failure on line 901." 

In court, Morris focused several times on Plains' Company Handbook titled, "Integrity Management Plan," and how one employee testified earlier that the manual was referred to as "the company's Bible."

The prosecutor listed numerous examples of how company policy and procedure were not followed on the afternoon of the spill.  "Plains is not above the law," Morris repeated more than five times throughout his closing statement.

Morris described testimony during the trial that showed a lack of response by Plains employees on the day of the spill, pointing to staff who appeared paralyzed for more than an hour following the first reports of trouble.  He also pointed out that more than 100,000 gallons of oil were never collected.

"It was not an accident or a mistake," Morris said. 

The Texas-based company faces 46 counts including four felonies for causing the 2015 spill. 10 of those counts are related to the oil spill, while the remainder are linked to dead wildlife.

Morris reminded the jury of testimony during the trial of local firefighters who described the ruptured pipeline as "depositing oil into the ocean" like a "waterfall."

The prosecutor cited marine mammal and Fish and Wildlife experts who, during earlier testimony, confirmed that the oil found on birds, sea lions and marine life -- miles out in the ocean and down the coast -- were "covered and saturated" from that same damaged line.

Attorney Luis Li spoke to the jury on behalf of Plains All American after a lunch break.  Li reminded the jury of a defense expert who testified an oil-covered brown pelican died from starvation after fishing wire was lodged over its beak.  But the prosecutor reminded jurors another expert witness testified there was no fishing wire found on the bird.

Li also told the jury a neutral third-party investigated Plains after the spill, and found no evidence of substandard operational practices.

The criminal charges focus on allegations Plains knowingly discharged pollution into state waters, failed to notify proper authorities, and violated the state's Fish and Game Code.

Cameras and video or audio recordings from the trial proceedings have been banned under a decision by the judge presiding over the trial.

The defense closing argument will continue on Friday.  After that is completed, the prosecution will have the opportunity to rebut.  Court officials said jurors may begin deliberating after receiving instructions from the judge on Friday, but will not deliberate the following week, which pushes the process back to the week of August 27.  

This is a developing story and will be updated.


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