In May 2016, a California grand jury indicted Plains All American Pipeline LP and one of its employees, James Buchanan, in connection with the May 19, 2015 Refugio oil spill in Santa Barbara. The Houston-based oil and gas infrastructure company faced 46 criminal charges, including four felonies. Buchanan, an environmental and regulatory compliance specialist, was charged with three regulatory misdemeanors for not timely reporting the spill.
Buchanan reported the spill pursuant to his employer’s government approved Spill Response Plan as well as the timing requirements set forth by federal law and industry standard. At that time, reports were required within 2-hours of discovering the spill. Spill reports were also required to contain details such as the GPS coordinates of the release and an initial estimate of the volume – data that can take time to collect. Buchanan made notifications 1 hour and 14 minutes after the spill was discovered. While Buchanan’s report was made 36 minutes earlier than the law required, incorrect reports from the scene led environmental advocates, media and politicians to complain about a much longer delay. This led to the grand jury investigation, and Buchanan’s indictment.
Doug Richards specializes in the representation of individuals arising from indictments of large companies. Doug was retained to represent Mr. Buchanan and successfully argued for the dismissal of one count for lack of probable cause and another for prosecutorial misconduct following revelations that the prosecutors with the Attorney General’s Office (headed at that time by Kamala Harris) withheld exculpatory information from the grand jury. With their case dismantled, prosecutors gave up and dismissed the final count on the eve of trial.
A key question arising from this case is if the indictment of a regulatory and compliance employee is a one-time event, or if natural resources, chemical and other companies should prepare both corporately and on behalf of employees for what happened to Plains in California. Politically motivated investigations are commonplace. What’s not common is the indictment of a non-executive for doing his job exactly how he was trained.