The company whose tanker was involved in the Feb. 7 oil spill is asking a U.S. District Court to limit its future liability for the disaster to $8 million, which will likely force Huntington Beach into a legal battle to recover potential costs for environmental damages, city officials said Friday.
American Trading Transportation Co.'s petition, filed in U.S. Central District Court in Los Angeles, claims the company was not responsible for the spill and, therefore, should be exempt from paying any damages in addition to the $20 million the firm says it has already spent in cleanup and emergency-response costs.
But if the company is found to be at least partially at fault, the petition asks that its additional liability not exceed the $8-million value of the American Trader, the 800-foot oil tanker that dumped nearly 400,000 gallons of crude into the ocean off Huntington Beach. The vessel, hauling British Petroleum's oil, apparently punctured its hull on its own anchor while mooring 1 1/2 miles off the coast.
The legal request was filed in response to a U.S. Coast Guard report last month that concluded that the Golden West Refinery Co., owner of the offshore platform where the tanker was heading, was partly to blame for the accident, said David Woolley, a Long Beach-based attorney representing American Trading.
"Because the Coast Guard hearing was very favorable to our client, we don't want cities and other government agencies suing us for megabucks," Woolley said Friday.
American Trading has paid Huntington Beach $250,000 as a partial payment of $554,000 in claims by the city for response and cleanup costs and lost beach-parking revenues, city finance director Dan Villella said. The payment is part of the $20 million the company says it has spent so far in connection with the spill.
For the past three months, city officials have been working with state and federal agencies in hopes of billing the firm for extra costs beyond those directly related to the response to and cleanup of the spill. Those charges likely would include reparations for harm done to local wildlife, damage to the coastline and perceived tarnishing of the city's public image, Villella said.
Although no price has yet been attached to such alleged damages, city officials have said the cost could total as much as tens of millions of dollars.
City Atty. Gail C. Hutton said she perceives American Trading's petition as "a way of getting out of expensive damages" owed to the city. "What's the damage of not being able to see pelicans again in Bolsa Chica? And what about the loss of fish? Or days lost at the beach? These are all questions that need to be answered," Hutton said.
To get those answers, the City Council on Monday will consider hiring a Long Beach-based legal consultant who specializes in admiralty and maritime law to further study the possibility of a suit against the owner of the vessel.
Mayor Thomas J. Mays said Friday he is determined to recoup costs for environmental damage, whether by negotiated settlement or court action.
"We knew that with these 'soft' costs we would run into some legal problems," Mays said. "But if we can justify these costs, and (American Trading) decides not to cooperate, then we'll have to go to litigation."