Texas Company Charged for Causing Major California Oil Spill

A photo of water contaminated with oil in the Talbert Marsh,

A photo of water contaminated with oil in the Talbert Marsh,
Photo: Mario Tama (Getty Images)

The Texas company allegedly responsible for spilling hundreds of gallons of oil near Huntington Beach, California, in October is facing criminal charges. A federal grand jury indicted Houston-based Amplify Energy Corp. and two of its subsidiaries this week, charging them with a single misdemeanor count of illegally discharging oil.

According to prosecutors, Amplify failed to properly respond to eight leak detection system alarms over the course of nearly 13 hours. Though the pipeline began leaking in the afternoon, Amplify allegedly continued to pump oil, not stopping until the next morning. Had they had responded sooner, Amplify could have minimized the damage, the prosecutors allege. All told, an estimated 25,000 gallons of oil poured into the Pacific with some staining the California coast.

Earlier this month, the Associated Press revealed a report filed by one of Amplify’s subsidiaries to federal regulators that claimed the pipeline did not have a functioning leak detection system at the time of the rupture. Previous investigations showed the pipeline may have been weakened months prior to the rupture after a ship’s anchor snagged onto it. In an interview with AP, Amplify’s CEO Martyn Willsher claimed the pipeline had “been pulled like a bow string.”

Amplify has also claimed workers responded to what they thought were false alarms that showed a leak on the platform. The actual leak occurred in pipes around 4 miles (6 kilometers) away.

“Had the crew known there was an actual oil spill in the water, they would have shut down the pipeline immediately,” Amplify said in a statement to the Guardian.

Aside from the alarms, the indictment accuses Amplify of acting negligently in five other ways, including operating a pipeline understaffed and with a fatigued crew. The company allegedly shut down and restarted the pipeline five different times, which prosecutors believe resulted in oil flowing through the damaged pipeline for more than three hours.

Local state Sen. Dave Min welcomed the indictment, saying (though maybe prematurely) that “justice was served.” Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley released a tweet questioning the “veracity” of Amplify’s statements.

The pipeline ruptured back in October, threatening local wetlands and wildlife. Nearly 25 miles (40 kilometer) of California coastline stretching from Dana Point to Huntington Beach were impacted by the spill. The crude left coastlines littered with dead fish and birds and forced larger marine life like dolphins to swim with oil.

Making matters worse, government officials said oil from the spill seeped into nearby Talbert Marsh, which regularly sees birds pass by as they migrate during the winter. If Amplify is found guilty, the negligence charges carry a maximum of five years in jail and potentially millions of dollars in fines.