By Tim Reid
SANTA BARBARA May 22 (Reuters) - Government prosecutors are investigating the company at the center of the California oil spill for possible criminal sanctions, according to the district attorney of Santa Barbara - a city that helped spawn the modern environmental movement.
Perhaps one of the worst places on Earth for a crude oil leak, Santa Barbara is a beautiful sun-kissed coastal city rich with wildlife, environmental lawyers and wealthy liberal activists.
This week it is also crawling with federal, state and local investigators and attorneys searching for grounds for a possible criminal prosecution against the Texas company whose ruptured pipe fouled beaches and offshore waters.
"I am working with the federal government and the attorney general's office to look into potential criminal, and/or civil prosecution," said Joyce Dudley, Santa Barbara's district attorney.
In an email sent to Reuters on Friday, Tami Kelly, a spokeswoman for Plains All American Pipeline, the Texas-based company that owns and operates the pipeline, declined to comment on Dudley's remarks.
Plains runs a pipeline network of 18,900 miles (30,420 km) in 46 U.S. states, much of it in remote areas where a similarly sized oil spill would likely create less of an impact.
But not in Santa Barbara, where a 3-million gallon oil spill in 1969 gave impetus for the green movement, a rash of environmental laws, and myriad pressure groups. There are more than 50 environmental groups in Santa Barbara today, including "Santa Barbara Car Free," "Get Oil Out!," and "Project Clean Water."
"Santa Barbara is probably the single worst location on the planet anybody could choose for an oil spill," said Eric Smith, a political science professor at UC Santa Barbara who specializes in energy politics.
"Since the '69 spill, people have just been waiting to pounce on the oil industry. To have the spill here, this company is profoundly unlucky."
Plains All American does not just have to contend with angry environmentalists and their lawyers, but also two powerful local prosecutors with political careers to consider and reputations for toughness.
In a telephone interview with Reuters, Dudley said she was traveling to Los Angeles on Tuesday to meet with a team from the U.S. attorney's office to discuss the spill.
Dudley said she is already working with federal lawyers and investigators from the office of Kamala Harris, California's attorney-general who has ambitions for higher office. Harris, a Democrat, recently announced her campaign for the U.S. Senate.
"My office is working closely with our state and federal partners on an investigation of this conduct to ensure we hold responsible parties accountable," Harris said in a statement.
Plains All American said it has more than 100 employees involved in response efforts in Santa Barbara, with more on the way. Its CEO, Greg Armstong, has been in Santa Barbara since Wednesday, the day after the spill, to oversee the response, a company spokeswoman said.
Linda Krop, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara, said the area was rich with animal and plant life, including migrating endangered blue whales. She said her group has already asked for the company's inspection records going back 20 years, as they consider legal action.
"It's a horrible place to have an oil spill," Krop said. (Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Ken Wills)