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Jury gets week off before deciding Plains All American oil spill case

Pointing to the difference between facts and emotion, a defense attorney spent hours Friday trying to convince a Santa Barbara jury that Plains All American Pipeline should not be held criminally responsible for a devastating oil spill that fouled the ocean at Refugio State Beach in May 2015.

Thousands of south coast residents volunteered to help with the cleanup after Plains’ pipeline #901 ruptured, sending oil under U.S. Highway 101 and into the ocean. Birds and other wildlife died while struggling in the oily sludge, while beaches, plants and rocks were blackened by the toxic mixture.

The incident shocked residents and prompted lingering concerns about the process of taking crude oil from offshore rigs and moving it to refineries in the Central Valley.

Luis Li, representing Plains, began his closing arguments late Thursday and continued to address the jury Friday. Closing arguments are the final task of prosecutors and defense attorneys in the four-month-long trial.

Li told jurors Plains believes the total amount of oil that spilled into the ocean was 700 barrels, or 30,000 gallons, rather than higher estimates of more than 140,000 gallons.

In summarizing his defense case for Plains, Li told jurors it was important to focus on the facts and use reason, rather than be caught up in emotion and passion from an incident that rocked locals and environmental groups.

Li reminded jurors of testimony from defense witness Katherine Buckingham, a consultant who reviewed Plains’ response to the spill. Her conclusion was actions by the company were not criminal or negligent.

On Thursday, and again during rebuttal on Friday, prosecutors told jurors the behavior of Plains employees was criminal, and the Company had information to show the affected pipeline was on the verge of bursting.

More than three years after the accident, no oil has flowed through the damaged pipeline.

Li told jurors Plains had no reason to suspect an imminent threat was looming over the pipeline, and referred to documents showing the pipeline’s actual condition was worse than what was in Plains’ records.

The case will be in recess next week due to a previously scheduled vacation. Judge James Herman instructed jurors on points of the law Friday, so the panel can begin deciding the case when it returns Monday, August 27.

Coverage of the trial has been limited by the judge’s decision to ban cameras and video recording from the proceedings.

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