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Refugio Oil spill in 2015 gives Orange County leaders a playbook for response

SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. - The massive Refugio coastline oil tragedy in Santa Barbara County in 2015 will possibly be a guideline for Orange County leaders dealing with the environmental disaster unfolding off Huntington Beach.

The pipeline break there leaked an estimated 144,000 gallons of oil last weekend.

The cause is under investigation and may have involved a passing tanker with a dragging anchor.

The Refugio Plains All American Pipeline break was on shore on May 15, 2015. An estimated 142,000 gallons of oil came out and went down a culvert from the north side of Highway 101 and gush into near shore waters. Impacts were detected through the flow of ocean currents along the Santa Barbara coast and into Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

The cost of the cleanup led by the U.S. Coast Guard and in coordination with company officials cost an estimated $96-million. Settlements with those impacted through legal claims so far are expected to exceed $257-million.

The Santa Barbara County District Attorney's office actively pursued legal action against Plains All American in Superior Court. The action is not completely finished. The D.A. recently filed an appeal on a settlement decision, to seek more restitution for affected parties.

Hundreds of sea birds and marine life were impacted by the oil spill and some died. Beaches for miles were closed.

Economic impacts and the images shown on national news were said to harm tourism for some months after the pipeline disaster.

The area is one of the most unique ecological regions in America.

What investigators are looking for is "who knew what when and what was going on," said Santa Barbara County Deputy District Attorney Kevin Weichbrod, the lead prosecutor against Plains All American. "The government can go in and did somebody do something wrong and if so how can we hold them accountable?"

With the U.S. Coast Guard,  Fish and Wildlife and other front line agencies,  environmental violation specialists with the local district attorney's office are on the sand. Weichbrod said, "because there is going to be District Attorney investigators out on the scene to see who the players are, see what they are doing and  not over seeing the investigation,  but giving input as to   this is an avenue to look down or this is information we think we should get." 

The District Attorney's office  also seeks restitution for those in  the business world that are impacted including the tourism industry and commercial fishermen.

After the Refugio incident, the beaches in and around Santa Barbara were quieter until the clean up was over, and time had passed. 

The DA's office asked those impacted to report their losses and testify to a judge. A part of the prosecution is "how best we can get these people in front of the court and say these are my losses  and this is what I am entitled to, " said Weichbrod.

If a company is upfront about the incident, it may still be tough to get vital details.

Weichbrod said, "how forthcoming they are with information,  how and if they take responsibility for some of the actions that may have occurred  prior to the spill. "

Santa Barbara County is in touch with will Orange County and prosecutors say they share information such as the process and outcome of the Refugio incident.

"How did you do this? What would you recommend?  What worked,  what didn't work?  Definitely we are in contact   and try to be as helpful as we can," said Weichbrod.

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John Palminteri

John Palminteri is senior reporter for KEYT NewsChannel 3. To learn more about John, click here.

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