After multiple failures to meet clean-up deadlines, the Environmental Protection Agency has forced Greka Oil and Gas — the company responsible for leaking some 550,000 gallons of oil and contaminated water in Santa Barbara County — to relinquish control of critical clean up activities at a recent spill in Santa Maria.

The takeover comes just one day after Gov. Schwarzenegger signed two legislative initiatives to protect local communities from land-based oil spills. Local state Assemblyman Pedro Nava — the author of the legislation — said the bills promise to be a landmark in conservation efforts.

“This is a great day for Santa Barbara County and the environment,” Nava, who represents Santa Barbara in the State Assembly, said. “Gov. Schwarzenegger signing my legislation into law will give state and law enforcement officials and state agencies all the necessary tools to pursue serial polluters in California. This legislation will prevent the rogue companies such as Greka Energy from polluting, and if they do, hold them accountable.”

In the eight years since it arrived in Santa Barbara County, Greka has been responsible for over 250 oil spills and at least 550,000 leaked gallons of oil and processed water, Nava said. According to EPA officials and Nava, Greka is by far the county’s worst polluter.

The fact that Greka could not get their act together in this most recent Santa Maria spill is not unusual, Daniel Meer, the assistant director for the Emergency Response, Preparedness and Prevention Branch of the Superfund Division in the EPA’s Pacific Southwest region, said.

“This is the third time the EPA has had to take over clean up activities because Greka failed to meet reasonable standards,” Meer said. “We have given Greka Oil and Gas every opportunity to effectively conduct this clean up under federal oversight, but they have failed to meet our deadlines.”

The EPA first took over clean-up operations for Greka in 2005, following the first Zaca lease spill. Last December, that same site saw 200,000 more gallons spill — an amount that rivaled the 2007 San Francisco Bay spill that caught national headlines. The EPA stepped in again earlier this year to cover the company’s Bell lease mishap, which spilled 56,000 gallons of crude oil and processed water into the environment.

The current takeover involves leaks at the Gato Ponds lease, in Santa Maria. The current oil leak drains into a nearby creek that is connected to the Santa Maria River, which ultimately flows into the Pacific Ocean.

Meer said that the EPA will be taking over the “most critical activities” at the Greka site and that the federal government will then seek reimbursement of those costs from Greka. Federal law allows fines of up to $32,500 per day.

The recent initiatives put forth by Assemblyman Nava and signed by the governor were largely in response to failed clean-up efforts by Greka.

The legislation will allow the EPA and other governmental regulatory agencies to take more action against corporations who fail to comply with environmental standards. The first law will increase the Fish and Game Dept.’s authority to impose harsher penalties on inland spills. The second law will create stricter standards that must be met by oil operators. Failure to comply could result in the termination of operations.

The legislation was presented in April, after Greka’s Bell lease spill. In a statement then, Nava said he felt the introduction of the legislation, as well as the intervention by the EPA, were necessary because of companies like Greka.

“I think anytime you have a company that’s responsible for 500,000 gallons of either water or oil spilled in an inland, you’re going to be singled out,” Nava said.