A state water quality board Friday imposed the toughest fine possible on the Exxon Corp. for the "intentional" flushing of gasoline into a tributary of Newport Bay last September by one of its service stations.
The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board said the unusual decision to seek the maximum fine of $2,760, or $10 per gallon of discharge, constituted a warning to the industry that polluters will be dealt with harshly.
"We are putting (Exxon) on notice . . . that we are not going to tolerate a reoccurrence in this region or any other," board Vice Chairman Jerry King said Friday in Riverside.
"And this puts others on notice that we do mean business and we will enforce the law," King said at the monthly meeting of the board, which has jurisdiction over water quality issues in Orange County and most of Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Board staffers called the Sept. 5 incident at an Exxon station in Irvine one of the most flagrant examples of "intentional" illegal dumping they have seen.
Exxon waived its right to a hearing on the matter and earlier this week sent a check for the full amount, James R. Bennett, board executive officer, said Friday.
Not an Admission
However, an official for Exxon said Friday in Houston that the agreement to pay the fine was not an admission of wrongdoing.
Barbara Maginn, an Exxon marketing representative who dispatched a local cleanup crew by telephone from Houston, said the discharge of 276 gallons of gasoline was "not intentional."
Maginn said Exxon personnel at the station were trying to avert a possible explosion of the flammable liquid when they hosed it into a storm drain on the grounds of the service station at MacArthur Boulevard and Red Hill Avenue.
The incident began at about 11 a.m. on Sept. 5, when an underground turbine pump failure sent 276 gallons of gasoline gushing over the station grounds. According to the board staff, an Exxon regional retail representative who happened to be at the scene advised the station operator to hose the gas into a nearby flood control channel and not to report the incident to authorities.
Bystander Called Authorities
An unidentified bystander telephoned the Orange County Fire Department and measures were taken to halt the gasoline flow into San Diego Creek and Newport Bay.
Maginn denied that the Exxon regional representative directed the spilled gasoline to the flood control channel. She said both the representative and the station owner were unaware that the storm drain was part of the flood control network and that they had to report the incident to authorities.
"It is our contention that the personnel at the station acted as best they could to minimize the fire hazard in an emergency," she said. "There was a person smoking at a telephone booth on the property. They had to get people away and get the product washed down as quickly as possible."
Maginn said Exxon initially wanted to fight the allegation that the spill was intentional. But, she said, the company accepted the fine because it could not dispute that an illegal discharge had occurred.
She said the company was developing procedures that would tell station employees what to do in the event of a similar emergency.
Bennett said the fine will be placed in a state fund for emergency cleanup actions.