Pressure group sues oil companies in largest environmental case in California history

California environmental pressure group, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), has filed suit against virtually all the major players in the oil industry in the largest environmental lawsuit in California history.

The multi-billion dollar lawsuit seeks to force the oil industry to clean up over 3500 underground storage tanks and refinery leaks that have allegedly contaminated sources of drinking water throughout the state.

“Decades of government refusal to enforce the law threatens California’s most precious natural resource: clean drinking water,” stated CBE Executive Director Leslie Fields. “Our action will force the big oil companies to pay for their failure to prevent massive amounts of pollution.”

CBE’s action, entitled CBE v. Tosco, et al, was filed on 20 January in San Francisco Superior Court against Tosco, Unocal, Texaco, Chevron, Ultramar, Arco, Exxon, Shell, World Oil, Beacon, Mobil, BP Oil, Thrifty, and USA Petroleum under California’s Proposition 65.

Proposition 65, also known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, was passed by an almost two-to-one margin by the voters, in the face of widespread agency inaction concerning underground storage tank leaks into groundwater. CBE expressly avoided suing individual gas station owners in the lawsuit, and instead seeks to force the oil companies to pay for clean-up.

The Wilson-appointed water boards ignored the law and allowed thousands of leaking sites to go untreated, using “passive remediation,” meaning that no clean-up action was taken. There are well over ten thousand sites throughout the state where petroleum has contaminated drinking water sources. This action targets many of the worst of those sites.

CBE Legal Director Richard Drury stated, “the oil companies made massive profits while putting gasoline into a storage and distribution system that they knew was leaking like a sieve. Those companies should no longer be allowed to sit back and count their money while the state’s precious water supply dwindles away.”

CBE has teamed up with three large law firms, who have developed their own software program to organise the vast amounts of data on each of the 3500 sites onto CD ROM computer format.

“This is an unprecedented project involving massive resources,” said CBE’s outside counsel Joseph Gonzalez of the Southern California law firm of Masry & Vititoe.

CBE seeks to force clean-up of the sites, and to “disgorge” unlawful profits earned by the oil companies as a result of the leakage. CBE estimates that the oil companies may be liable for several billion dollars as a result of their violations of law. Despite the law’s passage over ten years ago, neither former Governor Wilson, nor the water boards he appointed, nor former Attorney General Lungren, were willing to enforce Proposition 65 for its intended purpose of protecting groundwater. Instead the proposition is best known as the law that forces companies to place warning labels on everything from nail polish remover to parking garages.

“This case will send a strong message to all polluters in the only language that they understand,” said CBE Northern California Director Denny Larson. “If you pollute our groundwater, you will have to clean it up.”

CBE pioneered the use of Proposition 65 to clean up groundwater contamination in a seminal lawsuit last year against Unocal’s oil terminal at Avila Beach near San Luis Obispo. As a result of that lawsuit, Unocal was forced to spend more than an estimated $100 million to excavate the entire downtown area of Avila, remove petroleum contaminated soil and groundwater, and then rebuild the town and six square blocks of housing. Unocal also paid penalties of $18 million, almost all of which went to improve the local environment and community of Avila Beach.

CBE is a twenty-year-old non-profit environmental health and justice organisation with over 20,000 members throughout California. CBE has offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Pittsburg and Huntington Park.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie