12. How Unocal Covered Up a Record-Breaking California Oil Spill

Published: Updated:

Source: SANTA BARBARA NEWS-PRESS Date: 9/25/94 Title: “Environment: Why not a three-strikes law for corpora­tions?,” Author: Gary Hart

SSU Censored Researcher: Lori Stone

SYNOPSIS: In March 1994, the Unocal Corporation quietly pled guilty to three misdemeanor counts of spilling oil, agreed to clean up the spill, and to pay $1.5 million in criminal fines.

The “misdemeanor” spill-pos­sibly the largest oil spill in California history-was far larger than the 1969 Santa Barbara Channel oil platform blowout that spilled 4.2 million gallons of crude oil. While the full scope of the Unocal spill can’t be accurately determined, it is estimated to approach the size of the internationally infamous Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

Here’s how an environmental disaster of this magnitude went unnoticed and uncovered by the media:

It started back in the early 1950s when Unocal started using a light oil to dilute heavy oil at their pro­duction facilities near Guadalupe. The blend of the two oils was easier to extract and speeded the growth of a network of pipelines criss­crossing Unocal’s facilities. Over the years many of these pipelines began to leak with much of the lost oil entering the water table and an undetermined amount seeping into the ocean.

Although Unocal knew they were losing significant quantities of light oil, they ignored state laws by not reporting the spillage nor attempting to clean it up. When ocean spills were reported nearby, Unocal denied it could have origi­nated from their facility.

For years, Unocal succeeded in warding off any discovery that there were, in fact, millions of gallons of oil in the water table slowly working their way to the ocean from all over the production field.

The full extent of the spill came to light in 1992, when a Unocal employee tipped authorities that the facility was experiencing widespread loss of light oil in its pipelines; acting on the tip, the California Depart­ment of Fish and Game obtained a search warrant for inspection of the facility and found conclusive evi­dence of a corporate cover-up.

Company records revealed the large quantities of oil lost from the pipelines and confirmed that no effective steps were taken to clean up the chronic spills. In fact, Unocal actively worked to hide the spills-when light oil would rise to the surface, the company would use heavy equipment to bulldoze over the oozing pools.

Possibly worst of all, Unocal’s conspiracy of silence over several decades achieved much of its goal. The public probably will never know exactly how much oil escaped into the ocean since the facility was never monitored by authorities because no problems were ever reported by Unocal. Further, the state’s case against Unocal was hin­dered from the beginning by a judge’s ruling that the statute of limitations had been exceeded with regard to much of the leakage-a direct result of Unocal’s cover-up.

Incidentally, Unocal also was the company responsible for the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill disaster.

COMMENTS: The author, Gary Hart, a California state senator who retired in December 1994, felt that the issue of Unocal’s cover-up did not receive the exposure it deserved in the mass media last year. His article appeared in the local Santa Barbara newspaper and generated some letters to the editor and at best may have generated a story or two in the larger press.

“In this era of blame the govern­ment and criminal sloganeering, i.e. `Three strikes and you’re out,”‘ Hart believes this article “focuses upon an important issue: corporate irresponsibility and accountability.” Hart says that the primary benefi­ciary of the limited coverage given the oil spill and the cover-up is obvi­ously Unocal.