Oil company sued over chronic California spills

Government regulators sued an oil company Friday over 21 spills of crude oil and other harmful pollutants in Santa Barbara County waterways over five years.

The complaint claims Greka Oil & Gas Co., now known as HVI Cat Canyon Inc., failed to adopt adequate plans for spill prevention and response as required by the Clean Water Act at 12 facilities, resulting in chronic spills between 2005 and 2010.

At the time of the spills, Greka was the fourth-smallest producer among 21 refineries in California, but was the biggest inland oil polluter in the state, officials said.

The spills resulted from facility mismanagement that led to corroded pipelines and ruptured storage tanks, according to the lawsuit that seeks tens of millions of dollars in penalties, including cleanup costs.

A company spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.

The U.S. Department of Justice, along with state and federal environmental and wildlife regulatory agencies, filed the complaint in federal court.

Among the spills for which the company was sued is one in Los Olivos in December 2005. A nearby winery employee discovered oil in a nearby creek.

Officials claim a tank at Greka's facility overflowed and ruptured, sending crude oil and contaminated water into Zaca Creek, a tributary of the Santa Ynez River.

The "spill was of such quantity as to cause a film or sheen upon, or discoloration of, Zaca Tributary or adjoining shorelines," the complaint states.

The actual volume of oil discharged in the spills is still an important question that has yet to be determined by investigators. The volume would determine the amount of penalties the company could pay if found liable for the violations.

The complaint seeks a judgment for fines up to $32,500 a day for alleged violations of federal Oil Pollution Prevention regulations between March 15, 2004, and Jan. 12, 2009; and $37,500 per day for spills alleged thereafter.

It also asks for $1,100 to $4,300 per barrel of oil discharged, and $2.4 million for cleanup costs.

"In the county, the spills were a chronic problem," said Janet Wolf, a member of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.

Wolf said local measures meant to keep better tabs on what industry is doing have helped reduce spills in recent years.

She applauded the government's lawsuit.

"It's holding industry accountable, that's the bottom line," she said.