Friday, April 4, 2008

Nava's bite as strong as bark


After thousands of barrels of crude oil spewed onto the ground at Greka Energy facilities in Santa Barbara County months ago, few were more critical of the spill-plagued company than Assemblyman Pedro Nava.
On Dec. 10, three days after more than 60,000 gallons of oil and polluted water gushed into a creek on Palmer Road near Santa Maria, Nava took a tour of the facility and vowed to crack down on renegade polluters throughout the state.

His bark was loud, and yesterday at a news conference at the County Courthouse, Nava proved his bite was just as strong when he joined lawmakers and environmental leaders to unveil two Assembly Bills. If approved the bills will give state regulators more weapons to fight chronic polluters.
Nava said the bills do not unfairly target Greka, though they tighten the reins on inland polluters, who he said often face flimsier fines and regulations than their marine counterparts.
But Nava didn’t shy away from criticizing Greka, which, despite having nearly constant supervision from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the past four months, has continued to foul the ground and streams surrounding its facilities.
On Tuesday, officials from the EPA announced they had taken over cleanup operations at a Greka site, where they said the company had failed to meet preset deadlines — a feat Nava said requires an “extraordinary set of circumstances.”
“If Greka didn’t want this kind of attention, they shouldn’t be operating this way,” Nava said. “These are the steps that we believe are necessary in order to enlarge the state’s ability to deal with these kinds of problems.”
Nava’s first bill, AB 1960, focuses on oil spill prevention and aims to tighten existing laws. Under existing laws, Nava said the state’s Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources has limited oversight of inland oilfield facilities.
He said AB 1960 would expand the agency’s authority to include permitting of construction, maintenance, alteration and decommission of such facilities. It would also develop regulations for minimum maintenance requirements and authorize the agency to require companies that have histories of negligence to pay into a bond fund. Nava said the bond money would be used in part to provide resources for the state to begin plugging some of the estimated 400 abandoned wells in the state and help pay for more oversight.
The second bill, AB 2912, addresses the discrepancy between the way marine spills are dealt with and inland spills, the latter of which Nava said are three times more common.
This bill would add teeth to existing regulations by increasing fines and penalties as well. It would also give more authority to the Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response — the agency that regularly responds to marine spills — to focus an equal amount of its energy on inland spills.
“Repeat spills that have occurred in recent months in the Central Coast area of California caused significant threats to state water supplies and sensitive ecosystems,” a statement from Nava said. “Current fines and penalty levels have proved insufficient to serve as an effective deterrent, or as an incentive for some operators to take effective spill prevention measures.”
It is estimated that Greka has paid about $2.5 million in fines to various regulatory agencies since it began operating in the county in 1999 and has spilled more than a half-million gallons of crude oil.
Since the onslaught of criticism around Greka began mounting at the beginning of the year, Greka has insisted it will clean up its act. The company named a new president, Andrew deVegvar, who has insisted Greka’s largest spills are the result of sabotage. The company even offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the saboteur’s arrest.
DeVegvar said Greka has spent tens of millions on maintenance improvements over the years, a claim some regulators doubt since the spills are often the result of busted, rusty pipes and aging valves and alarms.
In a statement released yesterday, deVegvar said he supports additional state regulations if they don’t unfairly target Greka.
“Greka’s goal is to become a leader in environmental safety…” deVegvar said. “We support reasonable legislative efforts to improve environmental safety as long as standards are applied equally and fairly.”
Robert Wise, an on-scene coordinator for the EPA, has spent the majority of the past four months at various Greka facilities in North County. He said he couldn’t comment on pending legislation or whether he believes existing laws carry the weight they should.
Wise did say that in his 20 years with the EPA, he hasn’t seen anything quite like Greka.
“We’ve never had an incident where we go there for one incident, then we respond to spill after spill after spill,” he said.
Since arriving in the county in mid January, Wise said the EPA has responded to 12 different spills and has now issued enforcement orders for four different Greka facilities. The orders carry a daily $32,500 fine if not complied with. Wise said none of these fines have yet been imposed.
Nava hopes the legislation at the state level will aid efforts by county regulatory agencies, which are currently responsible for keeping tabs on local oil and gas facilities.
Nava has said in the past he wouldn’t mind seeing Greka’s operations shut down completely — something he said only the county has the power to do.
When asked if he believes the county should have enacted a blanket closure, Nava said the county would have to explain what they’ve done.
One thing the Board of Supervisors has done is issue a series of regulatory enhancements. The County Fire Department and the Air Pollution Control District, both of which are responsible for regulating Greka and other local gas and oil operators, also brief the board on a regular basis.
Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf said yesterday the county has taken steps to recognize its deficiencies and is trying to right the ship.
“I believe the county has recognized some of the shortfalls we have,” Wolf said. “We’re working on it.”
When asked what he thought about recent steps Greka has taken to improve, Nava said spills have continued and the company’s efforts simply aren’t sufficient.
“Nice try but no cigar,” he said. “You’re going to need to do more. You’re going to need to do better.”

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