On May 16, a chapter was closed in the legal history of the 1997 oil spill near Vandenberg Air Force Base when three energy companies agreed to a settlement that requires them to pay $3 million to the United States and the state of California.

The companies, Nuevo Energy Co., Torch Operating Co., and Black Hawk Oil & Gas Co., will collectively pay the settlement. Nearly $2.3 million will be allocated to compensate natural resource damage claims, about $300,000 will be paid as penalties to federal agencies and another $300,000 will be paid as penalties to state agencies.

The three companies were involved in an oil spill offshore of Lompoc in 1997, in which 163 barrels of oil leaked into the ocean and eventually spread over 21 miles of coastland. The Houston-based Nuevo Energy Co. and Black Hawk Oil & Gas Co. owned the platform and the faulty pipeline that caused the spill.

Several state agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Coastal Commission filed a lawsuit in 1999 against some Torch Operating Co. employees, who were operating the pipeline at the time of the spill. The lawsuit claimed the employees increased the amount of damage by ignoring a low-pressure warning on the pipeline and overriding the pipeline’s automatic shutdown.

“In hindsight, things probably should have been done differently,” Nuevo spokesperson Jim Bray said.

A year ago, the companies paid Santa Barbara County $1 million to reimburse the county for investigation costs and some of the damage caused by the spill.

Bray said Nuevo has installed new safety measures and also voluntarily shut down between September 2001 and January 2002 after the company noticed more faulty pipelines.

The Santa Barbara Planning Commission is currently considering the Tranquillon Ridge Project, which would allow Nuevo to drill into another oil field in state-controlled waters. The commission must consider whether to allow the company to process the oil at an onshore facility.

“It’s certainly going to be something that’s discussed. Historic events will have an effect [on the decision],” said Planning Commission member Joddi Leipner.