Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Greka fined $8.5M by State Water Board


More than a year before hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil spilled onto Santa Barbara County soil at Greka Energy owned facilities in 2008, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board had the spill-plagued company in its sights.
The nature of the state agency’s involvement with Greka came to light yesterday when the Water Quality Control Board filed an $8.5 million civil liability complaint against the company for repeatedly ignoring orders to clean up 37 piles of toxic waste at 14 sites throughout the county.

According to the complaint, Greka officials were made aware of four separate violations as early as Dec. 20, 2006, and repeatedly failed to clean up the sites despite knowing a $5,000 per day fine was being assessed.
Aside from the money, however, is the cost to the environment, specifically water sources that were and continue to be polluted as a result of the toxic waste, which consists primarily of soil contaminated with crude oil and a kerosene-diesel dilutant.
“The discharger [Greka] placed these soils into improperly constructed waste piles, including piles without berms that allowed impacted material to erode and wash into the surface waters, and piles with no liners that allow chemical compounds to infiltrate underlying soil and potentially migrate to groundwater,” the complaint states.
A message left for Greka spokesman Robert Emmers wasn’t immediately returned.
The complaint outlines a pattern of non-compliance on the part of Greka, which became the focus of local regulatory agencies earlier this year after a string of large spills at its North County facilities. A crude oil spill in January near the Firestone Vineyard in Los Olivos totaled 80,000 gallons.
The complaint says Greka officials were told the waste piles needed to be cleaned up at the end of 2006, and were given a deadline of Jan. 31, 2007 to complete the task. Two weeks before the deadline, Greka officials told the state instead of removing it by the end of January, they would provide a disposal schedule by April 30, 2007, which was allowed.
“The discharger did not submit the schedule, nor did it dispose of the waste,” the complaint says.
In October 2007, state officials met with Greka once again and were told a disposal schedule for the waste piles would be submitted by the end of that month, which was done, and indicated the piles would be disposed of by Jan. 1, 2008.
“The discharger did not dispose of the waste, or provide progress updates,” the complaint says.
Three similar incidents are highlighted in the complaint, which all show Greka would meet with state regulators, set deadlines, and fail to comply.
In one case, the complaint says Greka requested a two-month extension to remove the waste piles. When that deadline arrived, the company filed the necessary paperwork, and an additional two-month extension was granted. But the deadline came and went without compliance, and as of Monday, the waste piles remained.
In order to assess the amount of the civil fee, the complaint says a number of factors were taken into account, such as the company’s ability to pay such a fine, violation history and the gravity of the violations — all of which tipped the scales in this case towards the maximum penalty.
Assemblyman Pedro Nava, who has introduced two bills, that if approved will give state agencies like the California Department of Fish and Game more power to penalize and regulate onshore polluters, praised the complaint.
“I couldn’t be more pleased that the State of California is taking these violations so seriously,” he said. “It’s obvious to me that Greka has had a whole series of violations, one after the other, and [has been] given numerous opportunities to change its corporate behavior.”
Nava has said the need for the new laws stem, in part; from lack of adequate county response to either shut Greka down all together, or appropriately regulate the company, which even before the large spills earlier this year, had racked up hundreds of documented violations from the County Fire Department and County Air Pollution Control District.
“What it says to me is we have a serial spiller in our county who has been targeted by the EPA, who has now been targeted by the State of California Regional Water Quality Control Board, and once again I ask why hasn’t the county taken more aggressive action,” Nava said. “Part of my message is the residents of Santa Barbara County should be grateful the State of California is stepping up to the responsibility [of] protecting our environment.”
The complaint says a public hearing is tentatively scheduled for October 16 and 17, but may not occur if Greka decides to wave its right to such a hearing.

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