California water officials seek penalties in Santa Barbara oil spill

By Sharon Bernstein SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - California water quality regulators have asked state Attorney General Kamala Harris to consider enforcement action against the owner of an oil pipeline that ruptured near Santa Barbara in May, spilling petroleum onto beaches and the Pacific Ocean. The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board said on Monday that it had referred the incident near Refugio State Beach to the state's top prosecutor, who under the law could seek penalties of up to $25,000 per day of violation, plus $25 for every gallon of oil spilled. "The Water Board will work closely with the Attorney General's office to make sure all those responsible for the Refugio spill face the strongest enforcement measures allowed by law," Board Chair Jean-Pierre Wolff said in a news release. The owner, Plains All American Pipeline LP, said it had worked alongside federal, state and local authorities to help clean up the spill and would continue to do so. "As the cleanup phase nears completion and activities involved with the restoration of the environment and the investigation into the cause come more to the forefront, we will continue cooperating with the agencies involved," spokeswoman Meredith Mathews said. Refugio State Beach, about 20 miles (32 km) west of Santa Barbara, was closed along with nearby El Capitan State Beach after they were fouled when an underground pipeline that runs along the coastal highway burst on May 19. Both have since been reopened. After the spill, federal inspectors determined that the section of pipeline owned by Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline that ruptured had been badly corroded and was degraded to 1/16th of an inch (1.6 mm). The spill dumped as much as 2,400 barrels (101,000 gallons or 382,000 liters) of crude onto a pristine stretch of the Santa Barbara coastline and into the Pacific, leaving slicks that stretched over nine miles (14 km) along the coast and closing the two state beaches. The spill zone lies at the edge of a national marine sanctuary and state-designated underwater preserve teeming with whales, dolphins, sea lions, some 60 species of sea birds and more than 500 species of fish. The surrounding waters are shared by nearly two dozen offshore oil platforms. Wolff said the water board has the authority to impose its own penalties, but the attorney general's office had the power to order higher ones, should they be warranted. (Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Grant McCool and Eric Beech)