Greka Energy Corporation, the corporation that spilled at least 140,000 gallons of crude oil and contaminated water into Santa Barbara County and its waterways over the last two months, leaked 8,400 more yesterday.
If the event sounds familiar, that’s because it is.
Yesterday’s accident took place at the same facility as the Dec. 7, 2007 spill that released at least 58,674 gallons of oil and contaminated water into a nearby seasonal creek. The 200 barrels the Environmental Protection Agency estimates leaked out of the Palmer Road facility yesterday followed a familiar path and drained into the very same seasonal creek.
Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. Captain Eli Iskow said yesterday’s spill was the result of a pipe failure, while December’s leak was blamed on a ruptured tank and an alarm failure. Iskow said yesterday’s spill flowed for several hours before county officials were alerted – which is better than the Jan. 4 Greka spill that went more than 12 hours undetected – but the exact duration is still undetermined.
Iskow said various government agencies are on the scene to help with damage control.
“The leak has been stopped at the failed pipe and the flow downstream has been contained,” Iskow said. “Mitigation measures are in progress and the Santa Barbara County Hazardous Materials Unit, California [Dept. of] Fish &Game, federal EPA and State Division of Oil, [Gas and Geothermal Resources] representatives are on scene.”
However, yesterday’s notch on Greka’s long “infractions and spills” belt is far from the energy corporation’s only problem.
There Will Be Blood
Last week’s rainstorms were not good to Greka Energy Corporation. The hazardous weather conditions overwhelmed local Greka facilities on Thursday and Friday and resulted in four oil spills around the Central Coast and the closure of two Santa Maria facilities.
The fire department concluded that none of the various incidents posed a threat to the public, but EPA officials worried about nearby wildlife.
EPA Federal On-Scene Coordinator Robert Wise said that on Friday the agency was forced to intervene at a Greka facility to prevent further oil-spillage into nearby waterways in an effort to protect a habitat for the endangered tiger salamander.
Although Wise said the spill was minimal, he said his agency was primarily concerned with a buildup of crude oil – and the ensuing overflow rain could cause – inside the containment units of a Santa Maria-area facility. While the EPA had already informed Greka personnel more than a week earlier that the oil-buildup posed an environmental threat in the event of rain, Wise alleged that Greka did little to prevent the impending crisis.
The creek threatened by this potential overflow runs directly into a privately owned lake that serves as a habitat for the endangered tiger salamander, Wise said.
“They were warned, but they didn’t bother to do anything about it,” Wise said. “Their idea of cleaning it up was to cover it with dirt.”
EPA records confirm that inspectors visited the facility on Jan. 15 and observed accumulations of oil in pits, catch basins and uncontained areas. Yet, in spite of the warning, EPA officials were forced to intervene on behalf of the federally protected tiger salamander on Friday and pump contaminated water away from the creek.
“We stepped in and forced them to do what they should have done themselves already,” Wise said.
Equipment failure, poor maintenance on top of last week’s heavy rain also lead to minor spills at facilities near Los Olivos and Santa Maria. The fire department concluded that the various spills were caused by poor maintenance and failed equipment, including inoperable injection pumps, failed alarms, tank overflows and other failures.
Listen All Y’all, It’s a Sabotage
Counting the most recent spews, Greka has had nine spills from various facilities in the last two months and as a result of the very large – and very public – leaks on Dec. 7 and Jan. 4, Greka has come under fire from local officials.
Pedro Nava, 35th District Assemblyman, rallied against the corporation early, hosting public information sessions and personally compiling a long list of infractions and incidents Greka has incurred over its eight years in Santa Barbara County.
In an interview earlier this month, Nava told the Daily Nexus that he estimates the company was fined a little over $2.5 million since its introduction into the county, and that, in that time, the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District has had to conduct an inspection on a Greka facility on average every three and one half days.
On Jan. 15, after listening to hours of testimony against Greka Energy, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors put the wheels in motion to regulate the corporation. It directed staff to explore five specific ordinances, including one aimed at recovering county clean up costs and another that requires a report to the board every 60 days that outlines Greka’s compliance efforts.
However, the company does not believe all the negativity and blame is warranted. Greka alleges that the Jan. 4 spill of roughly 84,000 gallons was due to an intentional sabotage by an unknown suspect, and has hired Tom Parker, a former FBI agent, to investigate this suspicion.
Also on Friday, Greka announced the appointment of Andrew deVegvar as its new president. DeVegvar immediately issued a statement outlining his plans to improve operations at the company’s facilities, which included actions such as fortifying containment areas near creeks – like those involved in the salamander incident – and replacing out-of-date equipment.
“At Greka, we take seriously our responsibility to operate safe and secure facilities,” deVegvar said. “We understand that any event which impacts our facilities, whether caused by sabotage or something else, can have an effect on the environment, our business and our more than 200 employees and their families.”
He also announced a $25,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest of the person responsible for tampering with or sabotaging Greka’s facilities.
EPA and fire department representatives have declined to comment on the allegations as they await an investigation by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Dept.