Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Oil spills persist despite increased regulation


Forty-eight onshore crude oil spills have fouled the ground in Santa Barbara County since Jan. 15 of this year, despite increased efforts by regulatory agencies to prevent such spills, according to a report presented yesterday to the County Board of Supervisors.
Of these spills, 41 occurred at facilities owned by Greka Energy — the county’s largest onshore oil and gas operator, which through a string of large oil spills at the end of 2007 and into early 2008, prompted officials to draft stiffer regulations for spill-plagued companies.

While the total amount of oil spilled in the county between Jan. 15 and June 23 is nearly 13,700 gallons and consists primarily of small amounts per incident, it appears the number of spills at Greka owned facilities has actually increased in the past six months.
According to a Jan. 15 Board of Supervisors staff report, 400 spills occurred at Greka sites between 1999 and 2007, an average of about 22 per six month period.
The 41 spills recorded in the past six months far outpace earlier statistics. In fact, based on this number, Greka is on schedule to spill 738 times in the next nine years, county records show.
Though First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, the board’s chair, said he wasn’t aware of the severity of the increase, he said it shows the need for the county to continue improving its rigorous inspection process.
“It reminds us that maybe some of the chronic issues persist,” he said after the yesterday’s board meeting, during which he criticized county staff for not presenting a more thorough report.
Carbajal called it “outrageous” that county staff had not yet hammered out the details of a “high risk offender ordinance,” which would penalize companies that spill on a regular basis. Such an ordinance was one of five recommendations the board directed staff to implement during the Jan. 15 board meeting.
“It feels we’ve lost a sense of urgency,” he said. “It just feels that way to me. I think we would be remiss though not to make sure we are progressing. What we don’t want to do is drop the ball and it’s feeling to me that maybe we’ve dropped it a little.”
Assistant County CEO John Baker, who presented the report, denied anyone on his staff has “dropped the ball,” and explained implementing the high risk offender ordinance has been difficult due to resistance from the oil industry.
Baker said such an ordinance could cripple oil companies in their search for insurance, and urged the board to think of an alternative to the ordinance.
But Carbajal and Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf said an oil company flush with record-breaking profits from the skyrocketing cost of oil should be able to come up with the cash if they break the law.
“We’re the county,” he said. “We should be developing the ordinance, not the industry.”
Yesterday’s report, which is issued every two months, wasn’t totally glum, however.
Through increased inspections over the past six months at all onshore oil facilities, Baker said 1,111 deficiencies have been identified. The staff report says 765 of these deficiencies were identified at 18 different Greka owned facilities, and 243 of these deficiencies, which are anything from a failure to report a spill to a leaking valve, have bee remedied.
But despite Greka’s efforts to repair its infrastructure, the staff report says deficiencies remain at 10 of 11 facilities.
Of the 13,300 gallons of oil spilled in the county between Jan. 15 and April 30, about 10,500 gallons spewed onto the ground at Greka facilities. The next largest spiller during that time was Richards Oil with 1,395 gallons. Since May 1, 13 spills have been documented, eight of which occurred at Greka facilities, the report says.
Greka President Andrew DeVegvar told the board during public comment that the oil company has gone to great pains over the past six months to clean up its act. He said Greka employees have worked more than 16,725 hours bringing the facilities up to speed. Along the way, he said 1.6 million pounds of scrap material has been removed from the facilities, and by his count, the number of incidents in the second quarter of 2008 decreased by 42.7 percent over the first quarter.
“I came here to fix the problem and we’ve made some significant progress,” DeVegvar said. “Clearly we’re not finished with what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Carbajal said he’s confident more progress will be made when staff reports back in two months. And despite his criticism, he said he’s pleased with the positive steps taken thus far.
“On the one hand I appreciate that significant progress on some level has been made,” he said. “But there’s still a good way to go on a number of these.”

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