Monday, December 10, 2007

Nava tours Greka oil spill, will push for high penalties


The fallout from a 34,000 gallon crude oil spill at a Greka Energy facility last Friday continued yesterday, when Assemblyman Pedro Nava took a tour of the aging North County operation and didn’t paint a rosy picture.
“It’s a disaster,” Nava said. “This is a New York based company with a Fifth Avenue address that has world-wide operations and can’t spend money for new equipment in Santa Barbara County. It’s unacceptable.”

Nava said he plans to do three things in the near future that could change the way the energy industry in California operates.
The first he said will be to send a letter to the California Department of Fish & Game that will demand they pursue any and all legal remedies against Greka, civil or criminal.
The second and third include meeting with Fish & Game officials and introducing legislation in January that will tighten regulations on Greka and other energy companies.
“The bottom line is if they can’t operate their business in a responsible way that doesn’t threaten the environment then they shouldn’t be doing business at all,” Nava said.
Last Friday’s spill came less than a month after three other incidents at Greka facilities near Santa Maria, which combined, spewed more than 7,000 gallons of oil onto the ground and prompted County Fire officials to temporarily shut down a facility.
According to the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, all four of the incidents were the result of equipment failures.
Friday’s spill, which occurred at a Greka processing plant at 6084 Palmer Road, was attributed to a faulty pump that was supposed to recirculate oil back into the ground once a holding area was filled. The problem was multiplied when an alarm failed to notify Greka employees of the pump failure.
As the holding tank overflowed, it did so into a seasonal creek bed, which drains to the Sisquoc River. County Fire Captain Eli Iskow said the oil flowed a half-mile down the creek before it was contained.
Lt. Jorge Gross, of California Fish & Game, who is the incident commander at the Greka spill, said 30,000 gallons of spilled crude oil has already been vacuumed into holding tanks. He said this number will undoubtedly climb as his team begins to clean the creek.
Gross said he anticipates the cleanup will be complete by Dec. 22. He said the area is heavily populated by wildlife, but fortunately he has not yet come across any wildlife loss as a result of the spill.
Iskow said the fire department issues citations and conducts regular inspections on Greka and other oil and energy leases within the county, but can do little to require the replacement of aging equipment if it passes inspection at a given time.
“Most of the equipment on these oil fields in the North County is very old equipment and it fails because of its age,” Iskow told the Daily Sound after Friday’s spill.
Iskow said a stop-work order was issued Friday and the facility has been shut down until it can comply with a list of specific conditions, which fire officials plan to hand deliver to Greka officials soon.
But while Iskow maintains the Greka equipment fails because it is old, Mike Stoker, a spokesman for Greka, said the systems it uses are approved by the very agencies that are criticizing it.
“Everything was in as designed, everything was in as requested and inspected with regulators,” Stoke said. “The bottom line is this: whenever you have anything that is machinery oriented, no matter what you can still have accidents.”
Stoke said the alarm that failed was one of the newest pieces of equipment at the facility.
He acknowledged that the equipment used at the majority of facilities throughout the state by all energy companies is old, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useable.
As an example, Stoke compared Greka facilities to NASA’s space program, which he said has seen well-maintained shuttles explode during flight.
When asked if he believed Greka was doing everything in its power to prevent spills, Stoke said they were.
“In terms of this, I don’t know what else can be done,” he said.
While Stoke says Greka is doing everything in its power to prevent such incidents, the company continues to top the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District’s list of main offenders.
Terry Dressler, director of the Air Pollution Control District and an air pollution control officer, said since 1999 Greka has been issued 250 air quality violation notices. During that same time, Dressler said Greka has paid the county $500,000 for air quality fines alone.
Dressler said Greka racked up 65 air quality citations last year alone, which far exceeds any other entity.
Similar to Iskow, who said on Friday he wasn’t sure how much Greka would be fined for the spill; Dressler said the problem is in the age of the equipment.
“I think the problem out there is the equipment is very old and it’s aging,” he said. “It’s not in the best condition.”
But also like Iskow, Dressler said the Air Pollution Control District conducts vigorous inspections of county energy facilities, of which 56 belong to Greka – the largest number for any company in the county.
“We inspect facilities periodically,” Dressler said. “When we determine there are violations, we require them to repair what’s broken or come into compliance.
“Our regulations are pretty strict and we will continue to enforce our regulations.”
But despite the inspections of the County Fire Department and Air Pollution Control District, which both claim are strict, spills and air quality violations persist.
Stoke said he doesn’t believe this is the fault of Greka or county agencies.
“If they approve a facility that has faulty valves it would be derelict of their responsibilities,” Stoke said. “Things can be old. They’re routinely inspected.
“At the end of the day every single one of these operations can only operate after state, county and federal regulatory agencies can sign them off.”
If all of this is true, and fire and pollution control and Greka officials are doing everything in their power to prevent spills, yet they continue, Nava said the solution is swift reform at an even higher level.
“If Greka is saying that they are meeting all of the requisite standards, that tells me the standards are too low and we need to increase them,” Nava said. “You could not run an ice cream shop with as many violations as Greka has processing hazardous material.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is no such agency as the "Santa Barbara County Pollution Control District". There is, however, a "Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District", of which Terry Dressler is the director. Omitting the AIR from the agency name is misleading.