SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. – On Wednesday, the County of Santa Barbara's Water Resources Division pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts in connection to oil discharges from January to July of 2021 and January of this year due to a failure at the Toro Canyon Oil Water Separator.
In addition to the two misdemeanors, the County's Water Resources Division has agreed to pay a $15,000 criminal penalty and one year of unsupervised probation detail Santa Barbara County.
Additionally, the County offers that it has resolved potential civil liability over the spills by agreeing to a stipulated judgment requiring a $300,000 payment for supplemental environmental projects, $375,000 in civil penalties, and $75,000 for a consultant for statutory and regulatory compliance at the oil water separator facility.
The County has monitored the Environmental Protection Agency-designed facility since 2009 explain Santa Barbara County.
According to the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office, the County Water Resources Division failed to properly maintain the separator and did not apply for any of the permits required to operate it and cited internal emails where County employees acknowledged the unfulfilled legal requirements.
After the Thomas Fire melted parts of the separator's underground pipeline, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office detail that a Public Records Act request revealed that by Jan. 17 of 2018, oil was determined to be leaking from the damaged pipelines and "visibly contaminating the creek".
On Aug. 3, 2020, oil was still actively leaking into the surrounding environment from the lower section of the pipeline and indeed, a Water Resources Division employee reported oil-saturated soil to the Department of Public Works management which went unreported to both the Certified Unified Program Agency (CUPA), the agency responsible for overseeing hazardous materials handlers, nor the California Office of Emergency Services for 17 days explain Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office.
The law requires that both of those agencies be contacted immediately regarding oil spills of this nature stated the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office.
Furthermore, when CUPA did receive the report, the agency was not aware that the separator system was in operation because the necessary permits had not been filed and investigators documented multiple other violations including failure to have a Hazardous Materials Business Plan outlining how to handle spills and serious issues with the integrity of the system's underground storage tank detail Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office.
After a three-month deadline issued by CUPA to correct the violations passed, no violations had been corrected and no meaningful steps were taken to slow the leak of oil from the system state Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office.
Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office explain that in July of 2022, the State Water Resources Control Board issued funding and approved a contractor to begin repairs on the system and start remediating oil from Toro Canyon Creek which was by then saturated with oil for the entire length of its surface flow.
Even after the County Water Resources Division began cleanup efforts, the agency failed to secure necessary permits from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) nor conducted environmental impact assessments before directing contractors to begin vacuuming the creek detail Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office.
According to Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office, once CDFW learned of these violations, it required the County Water Resources Division to conduct the cleanup under the statewide agency's supervision.
Among the violations cited by CUPA during their inspection of the site was a missing functional leak detection alarm state Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office.
When heavy rains fell in the area in January of 2023, the underground storage tank overflowed and the leak was not reported until nine hours later when a homeowner called the incident in explain Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office.
According to the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office, when first responders with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department attempted to contact the phone number provided in the Water Resources Division's Hazardous Materials Business Plan, the line was disconnected.
Once officials with County Fire and CUPA got ahold of Water Resources Division employees, hundreds of gallons of oil had spilled from the underground storage tank and oil was detected flowing at least half a mile downstream.
“This case highlights the commitment my office has to holding everyone accountable when they violate environmental laws—regardless of whether they are an individual, corporation, or government entity," said Santa Barbara County District Attorney John T. Savrnoch. "Santa Barbara County has a long legacy of environmental consciousness and I am committed to honoring that legacy and to protecting the beautiful community in which we all live.”
Santa Barbara County details that $3.72 million has been budgeted for a replacement facility and the County Board of Supervisors has awarded a $2.2 million contract for the project.
The difference in allocated funds is to cover construction, construction management, and labor costs during the project explain Santa Barbara County.
Chair of the Board of Supervisors Das Williams said, "Replacing this facility protects the County against future discharges in Toro Canyon and is the right thing to do. The County is committed to best safeguarding our community and natural resources in Toro Canyon and throughout the County.”
The replacement facility is expected to be in place by the Summer of 2024 detail Santa Barbara County.