Yet another oil leak at a Greka Energy Corp. facility in Santa Maria last Wednesday is fueling already heated public scrutiny of the company’s maintenance and management practices in Santa Barbara County.
The leak, reported at the Greka Security lease at 5200 Dominion Road, was caused by the rupture of a one-inch pressurized gas line and resulted in the release of 42 to 84 gallons of oil and explosive levels of methane gas into the surrounding areas. Although a comparatively minor contamination incident, the spill marks the latest in a series of at least 10 leaks and other structural malfunctions at Greka facilities that have released an estimated 150,000 gallons of crude oil and other toxic materials into Santa Barbara County since November 2007.
According to a publicly commissioned 2008 Greka Energy Oil Facilities Update, the company, which operates 77 onshore oil-producing and processing sites in the county, is responsible for 400 emergency incidents since 1999 — more than the 11 other oil operators in the county combined. Additionally, the company had an inordinate number of compliance violations from local regulatory agencies, amassing over 430 with the Environmental Protection Agency, California Dept. of Fish and Game, Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. and the Air Pollution Control District.
Santa Barbara APCD Director Terry Dressler said the frequency and magnitude of Greka’s violations is inexcusable.
“By far, Greka has had more compliance problems that any other oil company in the county,” Dressler said. “We have periodic compliance issues with other companies, but none of them come close to the same numbers as Greka.”
As a result of the mounting citations and corrective actions, the company has paid roughly $2.1 million in penalties in the last 10 years, nearly half of which went to the EPA alone. According to Robert Wise, EPA On-site Coordinator, Greka has been cooperating with his organization in the substantial clean-up efforts from the various spills during the last few months, particularly at the site of an 84,000-gallon spill dating back to early January. Wise declined to comment on any potential suit against the company, noting that the EPA’s investigation into the case was ongoing.
The consistently high rates of regulatory violations and leak incidents have prompted officials to seek not only tougher punitive damages from Greka but also legislative reform that would hold oil companies more accountable for hazards caused by malfunctioning equipment.
At a board of supervisors meeting held on Jan. 15, the board considered Agenda Item 5, which included a staff report on the issue listing five recommendations concerning new ordinances aimed at such reform. Highlighted among these were two propositions: a Multiple Response Ordinance that would force companies with repeated leak incidents to reimburse the county for costs associated with emergency response and cleanup, and a High Risk Offender Ordinance, increasing regulatory oversight for oil companies that incur an excessive number of regulatory violations in given time period.
According to William Boyer, spokesman for Santa Barbara County, these ordinances are not aimed specifically at Greka, but at all oil producing facilities in the county.
“We are looking at restructuring how we recoup our fees,” Boyer said. “If the fire department needs to go out multiple times in response to safety compliance issues, taxpayers should not have to foot the bill.”
Greka representatives, however, have accused the county of unfairly targeting their company and assert that they have invested heavily in updating their infrastructure at a detriment to their bottom line.
In response to the staff report presented on Jan. 15, the company cited “mysterious 9-1-1 calls” and “cut and stolen gate locks,” among other things, as evidence of sabotage. Moreover, they accused the county of “painting a distorted picture” by presenting data that was “unreliable due to faulty reporting by county staff and recent acts of sabotage.” In response to the suspected vandalism of its facilities, Greka has offered an award for information on the suspected crimes, hired a private investigator to look into the situation and, more recently, announced 24-hour operator-surveillance of all its facilities.
According to Dressler, investigations by the APCD have found no consistent reason for the continual incidents at Greka facilities, but pointed to outdated systems as a contributing factor.
“For each incident that we have determined to be a violation, there is no overarching cause,” Dressler said. “Each incident is unique. Maybe it is safe to say that the infrastructure is very old, but [the APCD] has issued many permits to them to bring new equipment in, so they have been making an attempt.”
According to Dressler, county staff and representatives from various regulatory agencies will report back to supervisors on the issue and recommended ordinances at a public hearing scheduled for March 11.