3 Companies Face Charges in Oil Spill Off Orange County Coast

Major Oil Spill Fouls Southern California Beaches

Photo: Getty Images

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The company that owns the underwater pipeline that ruptured in October, leaking thousands of gallons of oil into the ocean water off the coast of Huntington Beach, was indicted today on federal charges of illegally discharging oil.

Prosecutors said Amplify Energy Corp. and two of its subsidiaries -- Beta Operating Co. and San Pedro Bay Pipeline Co. -- failed to adequately respond to eight leak alarms during a 13-hour period, then improperly restarted the 17-mile-long pipeline after it had been shut down in response to the alarms.

The indictment filed in Los Angeles federal court charges the companies with one misdemeanor count of negligent discharge of oil. For a ``corporate defendant,'' the charge carries a penalty of up to five years of probation, as well as fines that could potentially total millions of dollars, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Prosecutors said the pipeline, which is used to carry crude oil from several offshore drilling platforms to a processing plant in Long Beach, began leaking the afternoon of Oct. 1, but the companies continued pumping oil through the line until the following morning.

All told, about 25,000 gallons of oil seeped into the ocean from the 16-inch pipeline, which is submerged about 4.7 miles west of Huntington Beach.

The spill occurred in federal waters at the Elly oil-rig platform, which was built to process crude oil from two other platforms, which draw from a large reservoir called Beta Field. Elly is one of three platforms operated by Beta Operating Co., which is owned by Amplify Energy and also operates Ellen and Eureka nearby. Elly processes oil production from Ellen and Eureka and is fed by some 70 oil wells. The processing platform separates oil from water.

The leak forced the cancellation of the popular Huntington Beach Airshow, which was already underway when the spill was detected. Beaches were closed up and down the Orange County coast as crews worked to contain the crude oil.

Federal investigators have said the pipeline appeared to have been damaged by a ship's anchor, likely belonging to one of dozens of cargo ships that have been backlogged over a period of months outside the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex.

Investigators have boarded and searched at least two cargo ships that were believed to be potentially involved in the ``anchor-dragging,'' which authorities have suggested occurred as long ago as January during stormy weather.

The October leak resulted in at least 25,000 gallons of crude oil being leaked into the ocean.

During news conferences following the leak, Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher repeatedly denied that company workers had any indication of a possible leak in the pipeline until the early morning hours of Oct. 2, despite various reports that a sheen in the water was detected a day earlier. A report issued by federal authorities later stated that the company's control room received a low-pressure alert on the pipeline at about 2:30 a.m. Oct. 2, but the line remained in operation until about 6 a.m.

The federal indictment alleges the companies:

-- failed to properly respond to eight alarms from an automated leak- detection system between 4:10 p.m. Oct. 1 and 5:28 a.m. Oct. 2

-- shut down and then restarted the pipeline five times after the first five alarms were triggered, meaning oil continued flowing through the damaged line for more than three hours

-- pumped oil for three additional hours late on Oct. 1 into the early morning hours of Oct. 2 while a manual leak test was performed, despite the sixth and seventh alarms

-- despite the eighth alarm, operated the pipeline for nearly one hour in the predawn hours of Oct. 2 after crew on a boat the company contacted failed to spot any discharged oil in the middle of the night

-- operated the pipeline with crew members who were not adequately trained on the automated leak detection system

-- operating the pipeline with an ``understaffed and fatigued crew.''

More than a dozen companies doing business in the region have sued Amplify Energy Corp. for damages resulting from the spill.

Fishing resumed late last month along the Orange County coast, following a two-month shutdown of fisheries due to the spill. The fishing ban encircled 650 square miles of marine waters and about 45 miles of shoreline, including all bays and harbors from Seal Beach to San Onofre State Beach, officials said.

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