January 4, 2013 | Back to: Columns

California and Nevada County sue gas station companies

Nevada County District Attorney Cliff Newell joined California Attorney General Kamala Harris in filing a civil lawsuit Wednesday against natural gas companies Phillips 66 and ConocoPhillips for allegedly failing to properly inspect and maintain underground storage tanks at more than 560 gas stations in California.

“The state’s hazardous waste laws help protect our residents from contaminated groundwater,” Harris said in a prepared statement. “This lawsuit safeguards public health by ensuring proper maintenance of the tanks that store fuel beneath many California communities.”

The suit filed in Alameda Superior Court alleges that since November 2006, employees of the Houston-based multinational corporations have tampered with or disabled leak detection devices.

Newell called the practice “egregious” and said it allowed the companies to cut corners and save money that gave them an unfair advantage against competitors in the market.

The companies also allegedly failed to test secondary containment systems, conduct monthly inspections, train employees in proper protocol and maintain operational alarm systems, among other violations.

Finally, the suit alleges the companies improperly handled and disposed of hazardous wastes and materials associated with the underground storage tanks at retail gas stations throughout the state.

“It’s a quasi-criminal case,” said Newell, who added the companies are alleged to have violated the California Business and Professions code, along with Health and Safety code infractions.

A statewide investigation conducted by the Attorney General’s office allegedly found violations of hazardous materials and hazardous waste laws and regulations at gas stations in 34 counties throughout the state.

District attorneys from Alameda, El Dorado, Merced, Placer, San Bernardino and Stanislaus counties have joined Harris and Newell in filing the suit.

The 43-page complaint contains general examples of alleged violations committed by the companies at 25 locations throughout the state, none of which are specific to Nevada County, Newell said.

“There are violations at most, if not all, of their locations throughout the state,” he said, adding if they detailed every violation, the complaint would be impractically large.

However, Newell said the violations that occurred in Nevada County could be revealed during the discovery process, if the case goes to trial.

There is no immediate environmental threat to county residents, Newell added.

“There is no physical leak at this time in Nevada County,” he said. “The Nevada County Environmental Health Department deserves credit for their monitoring process of (underground storage tanks) and holding those in violation accountable.”

This past summer, Nevada County began, continued or completed cleanup efforts at 29 different sites throughout the county, including locations in Nevada City, Grass Valley and Truckee, said former Director of Environmental Health Wesley Nicks in a June interview with The Union.

Clean-up operations include removal of the damaged soil, destruction of the tanks and notification of the surrounding property owners that may be impacted by the operation, Nicks said.

Sites that contain leaking underground storage tanks include the former Arco site on Nevada City Highway in Grass Valley; the former Nevada City Gas site on South Pine Street in Nevada City; and the Gold Flat Service Center on Zion Street in Nevada City.

Newell said he was not
in a position to speculate as to whether any of the sites are related to the lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Nicks said in June that he expected 50 percent of the identified sites to be cleaned up by 2013.

Newell said it is possible that the county will recoup the costs of cleanup operations if the lawsuit is successful.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email mrenda@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4239.

““There are violations  at most, if not all, of  their locations throughout the state.”

— Nevada County District Attorney  Cliff Newell

Matthew Renda
mrenda@theunion.com

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The Union Updated Jul 19, 2013 02:34PM Published Jan 10, 2013 05:00AM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.