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SOLANO COUNTY
Pipeline firm pleads guilty in marsh spill

Jane Kay, Chronicle Environment Writer
Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The operator of a broken pipeline that ruptured and sent 103,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the Suisun Marsh last year pleaded guilty Tuesday to four criminal misdemeanor charges stemming from the incident and agreed to pay $5 million in penalties and restitution.

Santa Fe Pacific Pipeline, a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan Energy Partners of Houston -- the largest refined petroleum pipeline company in the country -- was charged with two counts of failing to immediately notify the state Office of Emergency Services and to two counts of polluting state waters.

Government regulators accused the pipeline company of waiting 18 hours before reporting the April 27, 2004, toxic spill to proper authorities, even though immediate notification is required by law. The spill occurred when the company's 14-inch Concord-to-Sacramento leg of a California-Nevada pipeline ruptured.

Kinder Morgan has said that Santa Fe Pacific delayed reporting the spill because it took time to determine whether there actually was a leak in the 70- mile pipeline and, if so, where it was located.

The pipeline company already has spent $12 million cleaning up the spill where it was virtually contained on 220 acres of marshland, and is continuing to monitor soil and groundwater.

The diesel fuel spilled into one of the state's most sensitive wildlife areas, killing some ducks, shorebirds and mammals. A final assessment of wildlife damage hasn't yet been released by the state Department of Fish and Game.

Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Solano County District Attorney David Paulson, who reached Tuesday's plea agreement, said they filed criminal charges in order to demand accountability in the future and to force the company to overhaul its business practices.

Lockyer's office conducted an investigation of Kinder Morgan's record statewide. The company and its subsidiaries "repeatedly failed to report spills and pipeline breaches throughout their system in California," Lockyer said. Kinder Morgan controls about two-thirds of California's pipelines, including for refined petroleum products and natural gas, he said.

"It's a serious problem when they fail to report for more than 18 hours a spill of 103,000 gallons. Suisun Marsh is the largest wetland left in California," Lockyer said.

Richard Kinder, the company's CEO and president, said in a statement that he believes that Kinder Morgan and its subsidiaries "acted in good faith" and "no additional environmental impact was caused by their notification procedures." But the company decided it was in the best interest of the company and its employees "to settle this issue and put it behind us," he said.

Since the spill, said Kinder, the company "has cooperated fully with federal and state agencies and has worked diligently to remediate the affected area."

In December, the company said it completed a $95 million replacement of the Concord-Sacramento pipeline begun in 2001.

The spill -- first reported at 60,000 gallons -- occurred at the northern end of the Suisun Marsh, where the terrain is flat and the marshland is diked. Cleanup crews used dikes, berms and plastic booms to contain the fuel.

Resource agencies have found 35 oiled birds and mammals. They included mallards, semipalmated plovers, western sandpipers, passerines, teals, sparrows, salt marsh harvest mice, California voles, moles, muskrats and beavers.

The 55,000-acre brackish water marsh and 30,000 acres of waterways in Grizzly and Honker bays, which compose Suisun Bay, attract 1.5 million ducks and geese, counting travelers and residents, as well as shorebirds.

But National Audubon Society bird watchers noted that the spill's timing was fortuitous because most of the migrating waterfowl on the Pacific Flyway had already flown for Alaska or the Great Plains.

Tuesday's agreement requires Santa Fe Pacific to pay nearly $3 million in fines and $2 million to finance investigation and prosecution of environmental crimes at the state and county level. Some of the money will be used to repay government agencies for their expenses as well as for environmental improvement projects.

Also, the agreement sets forth inspection and maintenance schedules for the company's network of pipelines and other safety requirements.

Santa Fe will be on probation for three years, and further violations could result in stiffer penalties, the agreement said.

E-mail Jane Kay at jkay@sfchronicle.com.

 

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