State fish and game officials were scratching their heads in May when a leading San Francisco law firm began fighting their efforts to ban commercial white croaker fishing off the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Who was the client? Could it be the San Pedro gill net fishermen affected by the measure? The law firm, Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro, was not saying, and its detailed, written objections to the ban did not yield an answer.
The client, it turns out, is ICI American Holdings of Wilmington, Del., one of eight companies named in a federal lawsuit that the Bush Administration filed June 18 over chemical pollution of the Palos Verdes shelf.
ICI disclosed this week that it is trying to block the ban, imposed on a 120-day emergency basis May 30, after a state study found that white croaker caught off the peninsula pose an unacceptable cancer risk because of chemical contamination.
The ban affects state waters from Point Fermin to Point Vicente. On Thursday, the state Department of Fish and Game is scheduled to hold a public hearing in Monterey on whether it should make the measure permanent.
An ICI spokesman said Wednesday he did not have enough information to explain why his company is fighting the croaker ban. But federal officials say the measure, if made permanent, would strengthen their case against ICI and the other companies named in the pollution suit.
The suit, they pointed out, alleges that marine life has been damaged by the pesticide DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and other pollutants that were discharged into the sewer system and pumped through ocean outfalls off the peninsula in the 1940s, '50s, '60s and early '70s.
"(Fishing) closures are definitely evidence of injury to the resource," said Grayson Cecil, special counsel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency spearheading the federal pollution suit. "That would be another piece of evidence for us to use."
The analysis appeared to be supported in remarks made Thursday by an attorney for Simpson Paper Co., a defendant in the federal pollution suit that is thinking about opposing the croaker ban.
The attorney, Roger Carrick of the San Francisco firm Heller, Ehrman, White & McAuliffe, said Simpson's interest in the croaker issue is the federal suit.
"It's fair to say we are studying anything that may have an impact on the lawsuit," Carrick said Thursday.
ICI owns the former Montrose Chemical Corp. facility at 20201 Normandie Ave., which the federal government names in the suit as a prime source of DDT discharged off the peninsula. Montrose, also targeted in the federal suit, manufactured DDT at the plant for 35 years before ceasing its operations there in 1982.
Although ICI's involvement in the white croaker issue only became known this week, the firm is already drawing heavy fire from state Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles), a prime supporter of the fishing ban.
In a letter he sent Thursday to state Department of Fish and Game Director Peter Bontadelli, Rosenthal denounced ICI's involvement as a "reprehensible" attempt to stop much-needed regulation of the fishery off the peninsula.
"ICI's goal is apparently to protect themselves at the expense of the health of the individuals who will unknowingly eat these potentially carcinogenic fish," Rosenthal's letter says. "I urge the department to keep this in mind when evaluating ICI's comments."
ICI--through its San Francisco attorneys--made extensive comments in May, when Bontadelli, responding to a call for action by state Department of Health Services Director Kenneth Kizer, drafted the 120-day emergency ban.
The written statements prepared by Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro strongly criticized the state Department of Health Services study determining that white croaker in peninsula waters carry excessive levels of DDT and PCBs.
Filed with the state Office of Administrative Law, the comments questioned the method of risk analysis used by the study's author, toxicologist Gerald Pollock, and the scope of the research, among other points.
The study, based on analysis of white croaker caught off the Palos Verdes Peninsula near Point Vicente, Point Fermin and the White Point sewage outfall, found mean levels of up to 2.98 parts per million of DDT and up to 0.6 parts per million of PCBs.
If such fish were eaten once a week over a lifetime, the study said, they could cause up to one additional cancer per 1,000 people.
Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro argued in May that such findings were based on a "factually inaccurate assumption," saying it is unlikely consumers will eat only one species of fish, all from the same source, for their entire lifetime.
The firm also questioned why the state should be in a hurry to ban commercial white croaker fishing when the only action affecting recreational anglers off the peninsula is a health advisory.