From the moment that a major oil leak was detected off Southern California, it took less than 48 hours for the first lawsuit to be filed against Houston-based company that owned and operated the ruptured pipeline.
It will take longer to find the cause, determine who is responsible and decide if they will be held responsible.
Multiple federal and state agencies are simultaneously investigating the cause of the pipeline rupture. They also examine how fast the operators responded to the incident and decide whether criminal charges should be filed.
Coast Guard Capt. Jason Neubauer stated that investigators are looking for the ship from the thousands of possible options that may have captured the pipeline and its anchor during the past year. This could be possibly in January when there were high winds.
Neubauer stated, “We aren’t ruling out anyone at the moment.”
First reported on Oct. 1 was a possible leak from the Orange County coast, south of Los Angeles. The next morning, the spillage was confirmed. Crude came ashore at Huntington Beach, then spread to other beaches. Businesses that cater to boaters and beachgoers were left with little to no choice but to close down large swathes of coastline.
According to the Coast Guard, there were approximately 25,000 gallons (94.635 liters), and 132,000 (495.889 liters), of spilled water.
Investigators may take some time to review marine tracking data in order to determine which ships passed by and were anchored near the Amplify Energy pipeline that runs from platform Elly to Long Beach.
Federal prosecutors, Coast Guard, and other federal agencies could investigate and bring criminal and civil charges against the Coast Guard, as well as new laws and regulations.
“Criminal cases — when warranted — you absolutely want after for all reasons that you pursue criminal prosecutions: accountability, deterrence and punishment,” stated attorney Rohan Virginkar. He was an assistant U.S. Attorney who assisted in prosecuting BP in connection with the Deepwater Horizon oil leakage in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. It’s really about finding someone who will pay for the cleanup in these environmental cases.”
Neubauer stated that Coast Guard investigators have already boarded two vessels. They plan to find others, many of them from overseas. They will inspect anchors for any damage, as well as review logs that were kept by captains, deck officers, engineers, and the voyage recorder, which is the equivalent to the black box on planes. They will interview the crew.
Virginkar stated that prosecutors do not have to prove negligence under certain environmental laws to be convicted. This could result in a shipping company being charged with anchoring too close to a pipe or vessel marked on nautical charts.
Accident occurred at Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, the largest in the country.
Federal pipeline regulators will also be investigating Amplify Energy as it owns the three offshore oil platform and the pipeline.
Attorney William Carter, a former prosecutor for federal environmental crimes, stated that they will examine pipeline inspections to look for evidence of corrosion and search any information that may have been falsified. After the cracked has been removed from 100 feet (30 m) of water, a forensic analysis will take place.
Amplify had to undergo thorough inspections on both the inside and outside of its pipeline in alternating years. Federal documents show that the most recent inspection found no problems that required repairs.
Carter stated that the prosecution will also examine control room data to determine if there was any pressure drop in the pipeline, which would indicate a potential leak.
Carter stated that the company could face prosecution if it didn’t immediately call federal and state hotlines to alert Coast Guard officials, fish and wildlife officials, and other agencies that respond to spills.
He said that spills are quite common and there is a good chance of being prosecuted for not responding in a timely manner.
Carter stated that the elements required for that violation were: Carter knew of a release and didn’t immediately report it, regardless of the cause. It could have been lightning, an earthquake, but you failed to report it promptly.
Plains All American Pipeline was found guilty of that crime. It was for a breach of a pipe that ran on land and allowed tens to thousands of gallons crude oil to pour onto Santa Barbara’s beach and into the sea in 2015.
Federal regulators stated that a low pressure alarm at 2:30 AM Oct. 2 alerted platform Elly control room operators to possible pipeline leak. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the line was not shut down before 6:01 a.m. and Coast Guard notification wasn’t sent until 9:07 am.
Martyn Willsher, CEO of Amplify, has refused to answer any questions regarding the pressure drop. He also pointed out that the initial report to authorities was made at 2:30 a.m. He insists that the company did not know about the spillage until an inspection boat from the company saw it at 8:09 am.
Carter claimed that Willsher was probably advised by lawyers not to discuss the timeline as he might be incriminated.
The company could be charged with failing to promptly report the spillage and for permitting oil to damage endangered species.
Federal prosecutors have five year to bring felony cases. Carter stated that they would wait to determine the true cost of the damage before requesting restitution.
Failure to notify authorities can result in federal penalties of up to $500,000, or even double the damage. The state penalties can reach up to $10 for each gallon of spilled fuel that isn’t recovered.
Regardless of whether a ship is found to have caused the oil spillage, the Oil Pollution Act of 90 requires that anyone who spills the oil must pay for its cleanup. This was stated by James Mercante, a maritime attorney. Amplify can, however, later recover its losses from other parties.
Mercante stated that the law was passed following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spillage in Alaska. It was meant to accelerate cleanup efforts without finger-pointing.
Mercante stated that the spirit and purpose of oil cleanup is to fight it out. It will take many years before it is resolved.
Two class-action lawsuits against a disc jockey, who organizes beachfront events in Huntington Beach, and a surf school in the city called “Surf City USA,” have been filed so far.
These cases will heavily rely on government investigations, and may take many years to complete.