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A federal lawsuit has been filed against the company that operates Orcutt Hill oil, accusing them of illegally discharging polluted water to local waterways in northern Santa Barbara County, which is threatening endangered species.

The suit, filed by the Environmental Defense Center, accuses Pacific Coast Energy Company LP (PCEC), formerly known as BreitBurn Energy Company LP, of violating the Clean Water Act after allowing polluted runoff water from their Orcutt Hill oil field operation to seep throughout Orcutt Creek and San Antonio Creek, both of which drain into the Santa Maria River and the Pacific Ocean.

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

The suit states that Pacific Coast Energy Company has been illegally discharging polluted storm water in violation of California's permit that protects waterways from industrial facilities' contaminated storm water runoff. 

Orcutt Hill spreads over 5,400 acres and sits on a state-designated oil field which they own and operate.

The waters, which are used for public recreation and enjoyment, also provide important habitat for both threatened and endangered species such as the unarmored threespined stickleback, the tidewater goby, the red-legged frog and steelhead, the suit said.

Some of the extraction methods reportedly used by PCEC included cyclic steaming, water flooding to extract and scrape every last drop of oil, said Alicia Roessler, staff attorney for the Environmental Defense Center, a nonprofit organization authorized to enforce the Clean Water Act laws.

"The steam is injected into the ground in hopes that it'd release, loosen up the oil to have it flow to the top so they can then extract it," said Roessler, adding that the process can cause significant environmental impacts, including ground instability and seismic impact. 

The process produces water that contains toxic chemicals, which the company in turn discharges into the ground, leaving ample chance for the waters to spill out and enter nearby aquifers, Roessler said.

Pacific Coast also failed to monitor its stormwater discharges as required by the permit, she said.

The suit comes after the Environmental Defense Center (EDC) served a notice in April to PCEC, warning them of violating rules set by the California Water Act, said Roessler, who claimed that PCEC "stayed silent."

The notice warned PCEC that they weren't monitoring the polluted runoffs being discharged around Santa Barbara County; furthermore, many of the pollutants included suspended solids and toxic chemicals hazardous to both the environment and human life, Roessler said. 

PCEC has a long history with county government -- in 2016 they sought to expand their drilling operations by 144 wells, which the EDC opposed, pointing out the concerns over the 100 documented oil spills caused by PCEC's Orcutt Hill oil operation. 

Additionally, PCEC was ordered to clean up their operation sites, Roessler added, which they never did.

Roessler said the EDC hopes the suit will mandate the cleanup of Orcutt Hill, but if they fail to do so, and neglect to make their facilities safer for the environment, "they should be shut down."

"We just hope they'll reach out to us, and comply with state and federal law," Roessler said. 

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Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210

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Courts/Public Safety Reporter