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Clean Water Act Enforcement Lawsuit Filed Against Pacific Coast Energy Company’s Orcutt Hill Oil Operation

July 12, 2018

Oil Company Charged with Cleaning Up Over a Hundred Oil Seeps and Spills Faces Federal Lawsuit for Illegal Storm Water Discharges to Local Waterways

Santa Barbara, CA – Today the Environmental Defense Center (“EDC”) filed a lawsuit in federal court against Pacific Coast Energy Company LP (“PCEC”) (formerly BreitBurn Energy Company LP), alleging violations of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”).  PCEC conducts oil exploration and development activities using enhanced oil extraction techniques such as cyclic steam injection at its 5,400 acre Orcutt Hill oil field operation.  Polluted runoff from this facility, which is located in northern Santa Barbara County, flows into Orcutt Creek and San Antonio Creek, which drain into the Santa Maria River and the Pacific Ocean, respectively.  These waters provide important habitat for threatened and endangered species, such as the Unarmored Threespined Stickleback, the Tidewater Goby, the Red Legged frog and steelhead, and are used for public recreation and enjoyment.

EDC’s lawsuit alleges that PCEC has been illegally discharging polluted storm water in violation of California’s permit that protects waterways from industrial facilities’ contaminated storm water runoff.  The lawsuit states that PCEC is discharging total suspended solids, oil and grease, and potentially other pollutants far above water quality benchmarks and failed to conduct sampling and monitoring of its storm water discharges as required by the permit.    

“PCEC’s polluted runoff is especially concerning given the facility’s egregious history of oil spills, which includes over 100 documented spills at the Orcutt Hill operation,” stated Alicia Roessler, EDC Staff Attorney.  “According to its own data, the facility has been discharging polluted storm water into our creeks and rivers for the past several years.”

In 2016, PCEC applied to expand its drilling operations by 144 wells, at which point EDC raised concerns over the 100 documented oil spills and seeps caused by the company’s Orcutt Hill operation.  Faced with uncontroverted evidence of historically risky operations, Santa Barbara County promptly denied PCEC’s application.

Storm water is among the top sources of water contamination in southern California, as significant quantities of pollution enter our waterways during rain events.  Oil field operations such as those conducted at the Orcutt Hill oil field, which include operation of miles of unpaved roads, construction, well drilling, well completion and stimulation (including cyclic steam injection and acidizing), production, and equipment maintenance, commonly discharge a wide range of conventional and hazardous pollutants, such as total suspended solids, oil and grease, pH, benzene, lead, arsenic, chlorides, and ethanol xylenes.  The adverse impacts of these pollutants on water quality can pose risks to fish and other aquatic organisms, wildlife, and human health.  

Under California’s “General Permit for Storm Water Discharges Associated with Industrial Activities,” industrial facilities are prohibited from discharging pollutants, including total suspended solids, oil and grease, and toxic chemicals, in excess of applicable water quality standards and without applying the best available and best conventional pollution treatment technologies to their pollution sources.  PCEC has consistently discharged polluted runoff yet has failed to take corrective action to fully remedy the pollution. 

Under the Clean Water Act, potential litigants must send a 60-day notice of intent to sue before lawsuits can be filed.  This lawsuit follows EDC’s April 17, 2018 notice letter.  EDC and PCEC have been unable to resolve the allegations without court intervention.

EDC is represented in this action by its in-house staff attorneys and Michael Lozeau and Douglas Chermak of Lozeau Drury LLP.

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