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State Searches Texaco Offices in Spill Inquiry : Pollution: Prosecutors say leakage was serious and could lead to felony charges. Company denies allegations that it failed to report contamination.

March 18, 1994|DARYL KELLEY and SCOTT HADLY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VENTURA — State investigators have concluded that 370,000 gallons of a toxic gasoline-like liquid leaked from a corroded oil field pipeline near Ventura, and prosecutors are considering felony charges against Texaco officials for allegedly concealing what may be the largest oil-related spill in Ventura County history.

State Department of Fish and Game investigators searched offices at Texaco's Ventura field for a third day Thursday, seeking evidence that oil company officials discovered the spill long before they reported it to authorities in January, 1993.

Investigators allege in a search warrant affidavit that Texaco officials waited until they could no longer conceal the massive leak before reporting it as a small spill, then secretly repaired their pipeline to avoid responsibility.

So much of the liquid leaked that it was floating 25 feet thick atop an underground water basin when it was discovered. It will take years to clean up.

"Texaco probably knew that the material would not remain in one spot, that it would travel underground down the canyon and to the open creek and eventually to the Ventura River," said Fish and Game spokesman Bob Schlicting, paraphrasing his department's affidavit in support of the searches.

Texaco spokeswoman Faye Cox said the company reported the spill promptly to state authorities and has cooperated fully in trying to clean up the site.

"We are dismayed by the D.A.'s and Fish and Game's action, but are cooperating fully with the investigation," Cox said.

The basis for possible felony charges would be that Texaco knowingly discharged a toxic substance onto private property and into state waters. Some of the leaked substance was flushed into a nearby creek and the Ventura River during rainstorms, prosecutors said.

Texaco could be forced to pay stiff fines and company officials could face three years in prison if such charges are filed and proved.

Prosecutors said Thursday that they have just begun to examine evidence gathered over the last year by state Fish and Game, the lead investigative agency.

The environmental cost of the spill is still unknown, authorities said. But the potential for problems is high, said Reed Smith, a pollution response coordinator for Fish and Game. "This stuff is really hot," he said. "It's an extremely toxic material."

Two of the four components of the liquid are known or suspected carcinogens, and benzene and toluene can also cause nervous system disorders. Ethylbenzene is a nervous system depressant and xylene may produce pulmonary edema.

State investigators said they do not know how much of the 370,000 gallons of lightweight, colorless natural gas condensate leaked into nearby School Canyon Creek, nor what its effect has been downstream.

Correspondent Julie Fields also contributed to this story.

Spill Site

At least 370,000 gallons--or 8,800 barrels--of a petroleum byproduct leaked, state officials said, from a corroded pipeline at a Texaco production plant in north Ventura. Cleanup of the underground spill could take three years.

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