Thursday, October 2, 2008

Nava's bills get approved, state to rein in polluters


Nine months after thousands of gallons of crude oil spewed onto the ground at two local facilities owned by Greka Oil and Gas Inc., two state laws were signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger this week that aim to rein in spill-plagued oil companies and give state agencies the power to shut them down.
Greka’s tumultuous history in Santa Barbara County was the inspiration behind the bills, which were drafted by Assemblyman Pedro Nava.

Nava said he felt it necessary to increase state controls over inland oil facilities when he discovered Greka had racked up hundreds of violations over the past eight years.
And despite the hefty number of violations, he said county leaders appear to have done little, beyond routine fines and shutdowns, to levy serious consequences against Greka.
“Until this legislation, the county was the only one with power to shut down a polluter,” he said. “They had the permitting powers, so it was obvious to me that with this kind of delay California needed to step in when you have a reluctant county who wouldn’t step in and do what they’re supposed to.”
Assembly Bill 1960 gives the Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil and Gas the authority to draft a new spill prevention program and establish minimum compliance requirements. It also allows the department to increase maintenance and inspection standards.
When the compliance requirements aren’t met, Nava said the division now has the authority to shut down an operation.
Nava believes AB 1960 has the ability to actually prevent future spills from occurring because it sets clear and definable minimum standards for oil companies to meet.
The current regulations, Nava said, simply state that oil companies should abide by “good oil field practices.” He characterized this standard as “ambiguous and nearly impossible to enforce.”
When the new laws go into effect on Jan. 1, 2009, Nava said the state will not immediately be able to shut Greka down. He said such regulation would be based on when and if a slip up occurs.
“If they fail in any number of management practices and continue to spill, the Department of Conservation has the authority to red tag a tank, valve or other pieces of equipment,” he said. And “now for the first time [they’ll] have the authority, based on a poor record, to shut them down.”
And Nava said no other operator in the county comes close to having a shakier record than Greka.
In the past 11 months, Nava said Greka is responsible for spilling about 320,000 gallons of crude oil and polluted water onto local soil, which accounts for roughly 98 percent all local spills.
The largest of these spills came on Jan. 5, 2008; just days after Nava turned his attention toward Greka. This spill totaled 221,000 gallons of crude oil on a Greka owned lease in the Firestone Vineyard.
The second biggest spill arrived a month prior to the January spill and totaled 88,978 gallons at a facility off Palmer Road near Santa Maria.
While the volume of each spill has decreased since earlier this year, they have continued on a regular basis.
Since the Jan. 5 spill, 15,396 gallons of oil has ended up on the ground at Greka sites during 11 separate incidents.
In the midst of these, several toxic gas releases and other underground oil spills, the volume of which remains unknown, have also been recorded.
Santa Barbara County fire officials and cleanup coordinators with the Environmental Protection Agency have said much of Greka’s problem stems from the continued use of ancient equipment that is badly rusted and not maintained correctly.
Even when it comes to spill cleanup, Greka has come under fire.
At the same time Nava was announcing the success of his two bills, the EPA was busy taking over cleanup operations at a Greka-owned site on Palmer Road called Gato Ponds.
The EPA ordered Greka to cleanup the ponds due to their close proximity to Cat Canyon Creek. According a news release from the EPA, the ponds have been leaking in multiple locations and pose an “extreme hazard for a spill.”
The statement says the EPA opted to take over cleanup operations at the site after Greka missed multiple deadlines to complete cleaning on its own.
With Gato Ponds, the EPA has now assumed control of cleanup efforts at three Greka facilities this year.
Greka officials have responded with promises to do better and even began implementing a program called “Greka Green.”
Robert Emmers, a spokesman for Greka, said under the new program the company has removed more than a million pounds of out-of-use equipment from its leases, implemented 24-hour monitoring of sites by its employees and built retaining walls above and beyond what current standards require.
Emmers said Greka isn’t opposed to new regulation, as long as they don’t unfairly target any one company.
“Our position on that is the same that it has been,” he said. “Greka is committed to being a good corporate citizen and being environmentally aware and they are demonstrating that through the Greka Green program.”
Nava, however, isn’t so sure.
“The fact that Greka is such a bad business is noted by everybody in the state of California,” he said. “No one has a record like Greka.”
Nava said he feels the vast majority of oil companies operating in this state are following the rules and should not be unfairly punished.
“Most of them are already doing appropriate management practices,” he said. “There are many, many other oilfield operators in the county who are responsible and take care of their fields. Greka doesn’t.”
Nava’s second bill is AB 2911, which requires the Department of Fish and Game to respond with equal urgency and force to inland spills as it does to marine spills.
A large part of this is raising fines for inland spills.
As it stands, an oil company that spills is fined $2,000 for violating the public resources code. This fine will increase to $25,000.
The fine for a spill that violate the Fish and Game code currently sits at $25,000 and will increase to $50,000.
According to a statement from Nava’s office, hikes in permitting fees and penalties will pay for the costs from increased enforcement and inspections.
While Nava’s focus has been on Greka, he’s also criticized the county for not acting quickly enough in adopting stricter ordinances to deal with spill-plagued companies.
Shortly after the large spill in January, the county began mulling over an enhanced ordinance, which for one reason or another has yet to be approved.
During a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal expressed his disappointment that the ordinance has not been completed in a timelier manner.
Carbajal reiterated that feeling yesterday during a phone interview, but said aside from a few minor tweaks, the ordinance, dubbed the high-risk offender ordinance, is nearly ready for a vote.
And when it is approved, he believes it will have just as many teeth, if not more than the new state laws to deal with companies like Greka.
“I think it’s great the governor signed the bills,” he said. “I think it mirrors and compliments what we’re doing locally.”
Carbajal said he’s not sure why county staff didn’t act swiftly on getting the new ordinance drafted.
“This, to me, has always been of the utmost importance,” he said. “I think staff perhaps was trying to balance a lot of different priorities and made a judgment call to bring forth a certain product of work. I’m sure they had reasons.”
That being said, Carbajal insisted he doesn’t want to take away from the fact that the county is nearly ready to roll with an ordinance that he is pleased with.
“It’s pretty much on the money,” he said of the ordinance. “I think we’re on our way to a good ordinance provided the board adopts it.”

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