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Three companies charged with negligence in Southern California oil spill

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Three companies are facing charges for their alleged roles in a California oil spill earlier this year, the Department of Justice announced in an indictment filed Wednesday. Amplify Energy Co. and two of its wholly owned subsidiaries — Beta Operating Co. LLC and San Pedro Bay Pipeline Co. — each face a misdemeanor count of negligent discharge of oil. 

The charge, brought by a federal grand jury, carries a maximum penalty of up to five years of probation for each accused company, along with fines that could cost them millions of dollars. 

The companies own and operate the San Pedro Bay Pipeline in Long Beach, California, that was previously used to transport crude oil from different offshore oil rigs to a processing plant. The pipeline began to leak on October 1, and officials confirmed the leak a day later after residents reported a petroleum smell in the area. 

According to the indictment, the accused companies acted negligently by not properly responding to eight separate leak alarms over the course of more than 13 hours that night. They're also accused of letting oil pass through the damaged pipeline, having under-qualified staff, and "operating the pipeline with an understaffed and fatigued crew."

"As a result of the allegedly negligent conduct, what is estimated to be about 25,000 gallons of crude oil were discharged from a point approximately 4.7 miles west of Huntington Beach from a crack in the 16-inch pipeline," the Department of Justice wrote Wednesday. 

California Oil Spill
This aerial photo shows beachgoers as workers in protective suits continue to clean the contaminated beach in Huntington Beach, Calif., Monday, Oct. 11, 2021. Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP

Amplify Energy said crews believed the multiple leak detection alarms were false at the time and that personnel collaborated to troubleshoot them by investigating various components of the platform. 

"Unbeknownst to the crew during this period, and further complicating their efforts, however, was the fact that the pipeline's leak detection system was not functioning as designed, but was repeatedly and wrongly signaling a potential leak at the platform where no leak could be detected by the platform personnel and where no leak was actually occurring," it said in a statement the CBS News. 

"Had the crew known there was an actual oil spill in the water, they would have shut down the pipeline immediately," the company said.

When the company did learn of a sheen in the ocean, Amplify Energy said it "immediately began to execute its federally-approved oil spill response plan." The company said it has worked with various agencies on remediation efforts since. 

"Amplify Energy and its employees are committed to safe operations that keep our people, the environment, and the communities in which we operate safe at all times," the company said. 

The spill was initially estimated by officials to be at least 126,000 gallons, however the U.S. Coast Guard later determined the spill was significantly smaller. 

Following the leak, dozens of animals along the coast were found dead, according to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, and California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency.

Multiple agencies including the Coast Guard Investigative Service and the Environmental Protection Agency are still investigating the leak. 

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