LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Texas pipeline company responsible for spilling more than 140,000 gallons of crude oil on the California coast last year was indicted on dozens of criminal charges in the disaster that closed popular beaches and killed sea lions and birds, prosecutors said Tuesday.
Plains All American Pipeline and one of its employees face 46 counts of state law violations in the May 19, 2015, spill that initially went undetected until oil began pouring onto a pristine beach on the Santa Barbara coastline and into the ocean.
Initial investigations by federal regulators found the 2-foot-wide underground pipeline was severely corroded where it broke on land.
Plains is charged with four felony counts of spilling oil in state waters and could face fines of up to $2.8 million if convicted of all the charges, prosecutors said.
"The carelessness of Plains All American harmed hundreds of species and marine life off Refugio Beach," California Attorney General Kamala Harris said in a statement. "This conduct is criminal, and today's charges serve as a powerful reminder of the consequences that flow from jeopardizing the well-being of our ecosystems and public health."
Plains said in a statement that the spill was an accident and believes no criminal behavior occurred.
"We will demonstrate that the charges have no merit and represent an inappropriate attempt to criminalize an unfortunate accident," the company said.
The spill came two weeks before Memorial Day weekend last year and forced the state to close popular beaches as an oil sheen spread over miles of the Pacific Ocean. More than 300 dead animals, including pelicans and sea lions, were found in the aftermath, and tar balls from the spill drifted more than 100 miles away to Los Angeles beaches.
The Houston-based company faces three dozen misdemeanor counts of harming wildlife.
A Plains employee and the company also are accused of failing to report the spill quickly enough to state emergency officials. An investigation by federal regulators found that it took hours for Plains to recognize what happened and notify officials.
Tests on the pipe had been conducted weeks before the spill, but the results had not been analyzed when it ruptured.