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May 24, 2022

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$230M settlement reached over 2015 California oil spill

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LOS ANGELES — The owner of an oil pipeline that spewed thousands of barrels of crude oil onto Southern California beaches in 2015 has agreed to pay $230 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by fishermen and property owners, court documents show.

Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline agreed to pay $184 million to fishermen and fish processors and $46 million to coastal property owners in the settlement reached Friday, according to court documents.

The company didn’t admit liability in the agreement, which follows seven years of legal wrangling. The agreement still must undergo a public comment period and needs federal court approval. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for June 10.

“This settlement should serve as a reminder that pollution just can’t be a cost of doing business, and that corporations will be held accountable for environmental damage they cause,” said Matthew Preusch, one of the attorneys who represented the plaintiffs.

Plains All American Pipeline officials didn’t immediately return a message Saturday from The Associated Press seeking comment.

On May 19, 2015, oil gushed from a corroded pipeline north of Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, northwest of Los Angeles, spreading along the coasts of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

It was the worst California coastal oil spill since 1969 and it blackened popular beaches for miles, killing or fouling hundred of seabirds, seals and other wildlife and hurting tourism and fishing.

A federal investigation said 123,000 gallons spilled, but other estimates by experts in liquids mechanics were as high as 630,000 gallons.

Federal inspectors found that Plains had made several preventable errors, failed to quickly detect the pipeline rupture and responded too slowly as oil flowed toward the ocean.

Plains operators working from a Texas control room more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) away had turned off an alarm that would have signaled a leak and, unaware a spill had occurred, restarted the hemorrhaging line after it had shut down, which only made matters worse, inspectors found.

Plains apologized for the spill and paid for the cleanup. The company’s 2017 annual report estimated costs from the spill at $335 million, not including lost revenue. The company also revised its plans for dealing with onshore pipeline spills.

In 2020, Plains agreed to pay $60 million to the federal government to settle allegations that it violated safety laws. It also agreed to bring its nationwide pipeline system into compliance with federal safety laws.

The spill crippled the local oil business because the pipeline was used to transport crude to refineries from seven offshore rigs, including three owned by Exxon Mobil, that have been idle since the spill.

Plains has applied for permission to build a new pipeline but it is facing an uphill battle.

The emerging debate is playing out amid the global climate crisis and as California moves toward banning gas-powered vehicles and oil drilling, while record gas prices have left consumers with sticker shock at the pumps.

A complex environmental review of the pipeline plan is not expected until October.

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