Chevron Corp. has agreed to pay $500,000 in fines and restitution resulting from a 1991 oil spill off El Segundo that sullied Santa Monica Bay beaches and threatened wildlife.
The oil company giant pleaded no contest Wednesday in Inglewood Municipal Court to misdemeanor criminal violations of the state's Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act, which went into effect three months before the March, 1991, spill. Deputy Dist. Atty. Erica Martin said it was the largest fine paid under the act.
About $350,000 of the fine will be disbursed among state agencies to pay for environmental enforcement and research and to reimburse costs incurred by the prosecution. The remainder will settle civil claims filed by the state, which will use the funds for bay-related environmental projects.
The spill occurred when an underwater pipeline was ripped open by a tanker trying to berth at a terminal one mile offshore from the company's El Segundo refinery. About 21,000 gallons of a diesel-like oil mixture was released, killing at least 20 birds and injuring several others, including some threatened species.
Patches of oil, accompanied by noxious odors, washed up on about 3.5 miles of beach around Malibu. Most of the oil dissipated rapidly into the water and air, frustrating cleanup efforts, Martin said.
Jeffrey J. Truskey, a Chevron lawyer, said the company settled the case to put the incident behind it and focus on preventing a recurrence.
One of three berths was closed following the spill. The company has spent more than $5 million repairing and improving the 26-inch-wide pipeline and operations at the terminal, where 2.6 billion gallons of oil are loaded and unloaded annually, Truskey said.
Martin said she was pleased with the no-contest plea. By entering the plea Chevron admits no error, although it is punished as if it pleaded guilty.
"This one we are very happy about because of all the various projects that are going to be funded," Martin said. She said she hopes the prosecution of Chevron sends a message to other oil companies to obey regulations and ensure safety.
At the time of the Chevron incident, she said, the company's maps were not clear on where the pipeline was located and how the berths were arranged.
Although she acknowledged that there have been improvements, Martin said the companies need to more closely monitor their operations.
"The money is probably not that much to Chevron," Martin said, "but the deterrent . . . is word getting out that we take these cases seriously."
Money from the fines and restitution will pay for new equipment for the Department of Fish and Game that will allow it to improve enforcement of environmental regulations in the bay.
The money also will fund several studies, including those related to the effect of oil spills on marine life and swimmers.
Environmentalists were pleased with the outcome of the case, although some were still concerned about oil shipping in Santa Monica Bay.
"Whatever Chevron did with their mooring system is a step in the right direction," Mark Gold, staff scientist with Heal the Bay, said of the company's improvements at the offshore terminal. "But as long as we have tankers in Santa Monica Bay we're never going to eliminate the threat of spills."
John Grant, who heads the regional office of Fish and Game's Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, said he thinks Chevron responded well to the incident, and was pleased that some of the money will fund environmental projects.
"If the money is spent in the right way then I think the environment will have net benefits," Grant said.