Santa Barbara Fishermen File Spill Suit
When gallons of oil from a ruptured pipeline oozed onto the Santa Barbara Coast in California last May, Sarah Rathbone's business took an immediate hit.
The owner of Community seafood, a business that provides local seafood to consumers, saw approximately 350 orders of fish cancelled because of oil contamination fears, resulting in a loss of more than $6,500 in revenue.
Rathbone's business ground to a halt, forcing her to close shop for a week.
She then had to supplement her orders with fish from the Morro Bay area after a commercial fishing block closure was put in place following the May 19 spill near Refugio State Beach, creating more expenses.
"That increased paid commute time, increased wear and tear on our company vehicle, and increased the volume of an expensive, high-market value fish that we wouldn't have sourced at that time of year," said Rathbone, a Cape cod native who launched her business nearly four years ago.
Despite efforts of clean up more than 20 miles of affected coastline, Rathbone said last May's oil spill continues to affect her business.
"We are still approached by potential customers who decide not to give us their business based solely on the fact that our seafood is sourced from Santa Barbara," she said. "The consensus from these lost customers is that Santa Barbara seafood is 'dirty' or 'not safe.'"
Rathbone is one of more than a dozen people in the Santa Barbara commercial fishing community and business and property owners suing Plains All American Pipeline. L.P. and Plains Pipelines, L.P. for damages related to the oil spill.
The class action complaint, filed July 1, alleges that the Texas-based oil company was negligent in its operation of Line 901, a 10-mile long, 24-inch wide oil pipeline that runs along the Pacific Ocean.
The complaint asserts that the installation of an automatic shut-off valve would have prevented the more than 100,000 gallons of crude from contaminating beaches, fishing areas and shellfish operations.
Meredith Matthews, community manager for Plains All American Pipeline, declined to comment.
"We do not comment on pending legal matters," she said.
The Santa Barbara Coast yields some of California's highest earnings for sea cucumber, sea urchin, red rock and yellow rock crabs and white seabass, among other seafood product.
From 1980 to 2013, local fishermen netted more than $328 million in ex-vessel value, according to a 2014 report by the Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara.
Among the plaintiffs are Keith and Tiffani Andrews, San Luis Obispo County residents who trawl for sea cucumbers in their boat, F/V Alamo, a 1945 Monterey Trawler, around Refugio State Beach as their main source of income. The oil spill closed most of the area where sea cucumbers are most plentiful.
"Sea cucumber season opened on June 16, 2015. That day, the Andrews should have been sailing into the waters off of Refugio, lowering their net overboard, to catch the sea cucumbers they sell to make a living. Instead, those waters were closed," according to the complaint. "The Andrews have been forced to confine their trawls to a narrow strip of water just east of the closed area."
The oil spill also affected Weihai Zhueng, a sea cucumber buyer from El Monte, Calif., who gets his product from several local fishermen daily. The spill created a dearth of sea cucumbers and doubt about its safety and quality, affecting his seafood processing and exporting business of five years.
"The premium price buyers are willing to pay for Santa Barbara sea cucumbers comes, at least in part, from the fact that Santa Barbara and the waters in the region have the reputation of being clean, healthful, and free from pollution," the complaint said.
Meanwhile, high school history teacher Josh Chancer, an Oxnard, California resident who has spent the last four summers as a commercial fisherman catching bass, halibut and other fish to supplement his income, lost significant income after the oil spill closed nearly all of his landings, according to the complaint.
Another plaintiff, Santa Barbara resident Cort Pierson, who gets paid 15 percent of all the urchin he catches daily for a boat owner, saw his wages drop after the oil spill closed the region's most significant sea urchin fishing grounds.
"Defendants' oil spill closed one of the most productive sea urchin fishing grounds in the entire region, and the area in which, but for the oil spill, Mr. Pierson would have been fishing for weeks," the complaint said.
Representing the plaintiffs are Keller Rohrback L.L.P., who filed the first class action suit against Plains, and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP, attorneys familiar with bringing on these types of lawsuits.
Keller Rohrback helped secure $5 billion for Prince William Sound-area fishermen and others for damages caused by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.
"The purpose of this class action is to hold Plains accountable for the damage it has done to local people and businesses," said Matthew Preusch, an attorney at Keller Rohrback in Santa Barbara. "The complaint we've filed on behalf of our clients includes what we believe are strong claims to accomplish that goal."
At this early stage in the litigation, it's too early to put a precise dollar figure on what the total damages are for the plaintiffs and the putative class, Preusch said.
In September, petitions were filed to consolidate the class action complaints, select Keller Rohrback and Lieff Cabraser as co-lead counsel, and appoint attorney Barry Cappello of Santa Barbara law firm Cappello and Noël as lead trial counsel, according to the Santa Barbara Independent.
Rathbone said she hopes the lawsuit will bring some compensation and public awareness.
"We're hoping to gain restitution of income lost due to the business closure and the expense of our increased commute and higher-value seafood purchases, as well as diminished future income due to the damage the oil spill caused local seafood's reputation," she said. "We also hope to educate the public about the effect of the oil spill on the harvestable seafood population and oceanic environment in our area."