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Orcutt Hill oil company ordered to reduce polluted runoff, pay $115K to watershed fund

Orcutt Hill oil company ordered to reduce polluted runoff, pay $115K to watershed fund

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A settlement was reached Wednesday in a federal lawsuit filed by an environmental group accusing Pacific Coast Energy Co. of illegally discharging polluted water from an Orcutt oil facility into northern Santa Barbara County waterways and threatening endangered species. 

The company agreed to reduce polluted runoff from its 5,400-acre Orcutt Hill oil facility and pay $115,000 toward a fund for projects that enhances the quality of local watersheds, according to a settlement agreement filed March 4 in federal court in Los Angeles. 

Pacific Coast Energy was sued in July 2018 by the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center, which accused the company of violating the Clean Water Act by allowing polluted runoff water from its Orcutt Hill facility to seep into Orcutt and San Antonio creeks, both of which drain into the Santa Maria River and the Pacific Ocean. 

The nonprofit accused Pacific Coast Energy of discharging a number of potential pollutants — including oil and grease — far above water quality benchmarks and failing to monitor the stormwater discharge. 

The discharge violated California's permit that protects waterways from industrial facilities' contaminated stormwater runoff.

The waterways are used for public recreation and also provide important habitat for threatened and endangered species, such as the unarmored threespined stickleback, the tidewater goby, the red-legged frog and the steelhead trout, according to the lawsuit. 

Oil field operations such as the one in Orcutt Hill use cyclic steam injection and acidizing oil extraction techniques, which can discharge hazardous pollutants that impact water quality and pose risks to wildlife and humans, according to the Environmental Defense Center. 

Representatives of Pacific Coast Energy did not return calls for comment by press time.

The company applied to expand its drilling operations by 144 wells in 2016, when the nonprofit raised concerns over the 100 oil spills and seeps caused by Pacific Coast Energy's Orcutt Hill operation. 

The county ultimately denied Pacific Coast Energy's application. 

Under the settlement, Pacific Coast Energy agreed to improve the road network at its facility in order to reduce runoff. The company also agreed to improve runoff monitoring and add a location to collect stormwater samples. 

Additionally, the company regraded the mouth of a well pad to ensure that stormwater doesn't run off onto the road, according to the settlement. 

The $115,000 paid by Pacific Coast Energy will go to the Oakland-based Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment to provide grants for restoration projects in the San Antonio and Orcutt creeks, as well as the Santa Maria River watersheds.

The company also agreed to pay $180,000 to the nonprofit for attorneys fees and other costs stemming from the lawsuit. 

“We are pleased that the oil company has committed to addressing polluted stormwater runoff at its facility, which will greatly benefit local communities and wildlife,” said Maggie Hall, a staff attorney with the Environmental Defense Center. “In addition to cleaning up pollution sources, the settlement also provides for a substantial fund strictly dedicated to on-the-ground projects that will restore the affected watersheds.”

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The following is taken from the Santa Maria Police Department's calls-for-service log and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office daily arrest log. Those appearing as "arrested" are only suspected of the crime indicated but are presumed innocent.

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