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O.C. Plots Course in Pollution Case

Environment: Supervisors OK hiring outside lawyers for the county's lawsuit alleging oil companies' leaking tanks are fouling soil and water.


A plan to hire an outside legal team to represent the county in its lawsuit accusing oil companies of polluting soil and water in every city in Orange County was approved Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors.

The oil firms are being blamed for leaking underground tanks at more than 300 former or current gas stations countywide.

By a 4-1 vote, supervisors agreed to hire a team of two Newport Beach law firms that said they would take on the civil lawsuits on a contingency basis, meaning they will be paid through any future judgment or settlements.

Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas originally wanted to hire a different legal team at an hourly rate. But supervisors told him to negotiate with other firms after learning that a per-hour agreement would cost $6 million to $10 million over the next five to 10 years.

Under a contingency plan, the firms absorb litigation costs upfront but get a percentage of a favorable judgment. The county would put its share into a fund for cleanup efforts.

Supervisor Chuck Smith voted against the contract, saying it could backfire.

If a trial judge rejected the contingency agreement and ordered the law firms to be paid on an hourly basis, the contract calls for them to be paid more than $7 million. Since the case could last years, Smith said it could impose an unfair financial burden on future supervisors.

But Rackauckas said the chances of that are remote because the firms stand to gain more from a favorable judgment or settlement than from seeing the case drag out.

"We don't want to see the county overcharged," said attorney Mark P. Robinson Jr., whose firm--Robinson, Calcagnie & Robinson--was selected. The other firm is Lopez, Hodes, Restaino, Milman, Skikos & Polos.

Robinson told the board that both firms are from Orange County and are concerned with environmental issues such as water pollution. A former president of Consumer Attorneys of California, Robinson successfully pushed for legislation in Sacramento to toughen air pollution measures.

Rackauckas had recommended hiring outside law firms because the case will be time-consuming and requires lawyers with environmental expertise.

The case also requires creating a database to handle the more than 200,000 documents involved, Rackauckas said.

The case involves 330 current and former gas station sites in the county where there has been soil and ground-water contamination because of leaking underground tanks.

Sites have been found in every city and also in unincorporated areas. The county has cited the sites repeatedly.

The companies include Arco, BP Amoco, Thrifty Oil, Arco Chemical, Lyondell Chemical and Shell.

The gasoline additive MTBE, which helps reduce air pollution but may cause cancer at high concentrations, has been detected, but it does not immediately threaten drinking water, officials said.

The county is unique in the state because it has its own supply of drinking water in large naturally produced aquifers. About 75% of the water is drawn from county aquifers.

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