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Santa Monica Sues 7 Oil Firms Over Tainted Water Wells

Health: City officials say MTBE contamination from leaking tanks and pipes will cost $200 million to clean up.

June 20, 2000|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charging that leaky gasoline storage tanks and pipelines have contaminated city water wells, Santa Monica officials sued seven major oil companies Monday in an attempt to force a $200-million cleanup.

City leaders said the clean-burning gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, has seeped into ground water supplies at the eastern edge of Santa Monica and poisoned seven of the city's 11 wells.

The lawsuit, filed Monday afternoon in San Francisco County Superior Court, alleges that the oil companies, along with 11 other pipeline firms, chemical companies and refiners, improperly stored gasoline containing the additive in poorly maintained underground tanks and pipes in West Los Angeles and Culver City.

That area, in the vicinity of the San Diego Freeway and Venice Boulevard, is near Santa Monica's Charnock Well Field, which for 75 years has been the primary source of the city's drinking water.

"Thanks to the oil industry, the city no longer can use most of its drinking water," said Mayor Ken Genser.

"The time has come for the oil industry to pay for the cleanup of its pollution."

City officials said Monday they have sought to work with oil companies to restore the water's purity for the past four years--since high levels of MTBE began appearing in the well water.

In high concentrations, MTBE smells like turpentine. It is also thought to cause cancer in humans.

As recently as 1995, Santa Monica leaders say, they were able to pump enough drinking water to to be self-sufficient. When the 1994 Northridge earthquake damaged other water sources, the wells were the city's sole drinking water supply for a while.

These days, instead of having to purchase only about 20% of its water from outside sources, Santa Monica must buy 80%.

The lawsuit names the Shell, Chevron, Atlantic Richfield, Mobil, Exxon, Texaco and Unocal oil companies, along with various subsidiaries, pipeline firms and smaller refiners.

"We were expecting something like this," said Barry Lane, a spokesman for Unocal Corp. in El Segundo. He said his company is uncertain whether it shares any blame in the pollution, however.

Added a Chevron representative in San Francisco: "It's been an issue for a long time."

Representatives of other companies named in the suit could not be reached for comment Monday.

Santa Monica officials said the court action was taken after attempts to work with Shell Oil and Chevron to clean up the Charnock Well Field two years ago fizzled.

City Atty. Marsha Moutrie said negotiations broke down in January in a process aimed at coming up with a method for the cleanup.

Moutrie said the $200-million cleanup price tag is an estimate from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Craig Perkins, the city's environmental and public works director, said various technologies will be studied to determine the best way to sanitize the seven wells. He said that a trial will probably determine which companies are directly responsible for the underground leaks.

He said the well field produces 6,000 gallons of drinking water a minute.

City officials said they have hired Dallas lawyer Fred Baron to help press the lawsuit. Baron is president of the Assn. of Trial Lawyers of America and is considered a toxic tort specialist.

Monday's suit follows an order three months ago by the EPA to force 13 oil companies to pay all the costs to replace Santa Monica's contaminated drinking water.

At that time, city officials signaled their intention to also force the petroleum firms to restore the wells to full use.

Joe Lawrence, Santa Monica's assistant city attorney, labeled the EPA action "a stunning indictment of how reckless the oil companies have been" and an "important step in helping us solve this long-festering problem."

City officials said the lawsuit will have no effect on a previous agreement they have with Mobil to clean two water wells that produce 300 gallons a minute near Wilshire Boulevard and Bundy Drive. A gas station 250 feet from the water supply is suspected of fouling those wells. Charcoal filters are being used to cleanse that water.

Oil companies were ordered last year to phase out the use of MTBEs in all gasoline sold in California by the start of 2003.

The additive was used in unleaded gasoline to reduce carbon monoxide and volatile organic chemical emissions.

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