Pipeline operator agrees to guilty plea in California spill

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FILE - Workers in protective suits continue to clean the contaminated beach with a platform in the background in Huntington Beach, Calif., on Oct. 11, 2021. A pipeline operator and two subsidiaries have agreed to plead guilty to negligently discharging oil off the Southern California coast in connection with a pipeline break that covered beaches with blobs of crude. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

SANTA ANA, Calif. – A pipeline operator and two subsidiaries agreed Friday to plead guilty to negligently discharging oil off the Southern California coast in connection with a pipeline break that covered beaches with blobs of crude.

The U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles said in a statement that Houston-based Amplify Energy and two subsidiaries agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and pay a $7 million fine and nearly $6 million in expenses incurred by government entities, including the U.S. Coast Guard. The companies would also install a new leak detection system for pipeline and train employees to identify and respond to potential leaks, the statement said.

“Our nation’s environmental laws are designed to protect our communities and oceans from hazardous pollutants, including oil,” said Scot Adair, special agent in charge of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s criminal investigation division in California. “Amplify Energy’s agreement to plead guilty today demonstrates that companies that negligently violate those laws will be held responsible for their crimes.”

The plea agreements still need to be approved by U.S. District Judge David Carter.

Amplify Energy, which owns the pipeline that ruptured, said the company has been cooperating with the investigation into the spill and is committed to operating safely.

“We believe this resolution, which is subject to court review and approval, reflects the commitments we made immediately following the incident to impacted parties,” Martyn Willsher, Amplify's president, said in a statement.

The October 2021 leak in a pipeline that ferried crude oil from offshore platforms to the Southern California coast spilled about 25,000 gallons (94,600 liters) of oil into the Pacific Ocean.

While less severe than initially feared, the spill about 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) offshore shuttered beaches in surf-friendly Huntington Beach and nearby communities for a week and fisheries for more than a month, oiled birds and threatened wetlands the region has been striving to restore.

“The Orange County oil spill was devastating for our environment, our community and our local businesses," said state Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, who represents the area, in a statement.

U.S. prosecutors charged the companies late last year with the illegal discharge of oil and failure to respond to eight leak detection alarms over a 13-hour period that should have alerted them to the spill. The leak detection system alarm first sounded late in the afternoon on Oct. 1, but workers believed it was triggered by a change in the concentration of produced water in the pipeline earlier in the day, according to a copy of the plea agreement.

The alarm sounded repeatedly throughout the night and workers shut down the pipeline to investigate, then restarted it again. Before dawn on Oct. 2, a boat went out and traveled along the course of the undersea pipeline with flashlights but didn't see signs of a leak, according to the agreement.

It wasn't until a boat went out after daybreak that the spill was identified, the papers said.

In the plea agreement, Amplify contends that two ships dragged their anchors across the pipeline and damaged it during a January 2021 storm, but they weren't notified until after the October 2021 spill. Without this damage, Amplify, which has filed a civil claim against the ships, has argued that the spill would not have happened.