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Cleanup in Irvine, by Order of the Court

Environment: Over the owner's protests, the D.A.'s office brings in a crew to protect water from gas station leaks.

October 09, 2002|STUART PFEIFER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under police guard, a construction crew on Tuesday began a project aimed at removing pollutants from under an Irvine gas station despite protests from the business owner.

County prosecutors took the unusual step of getting a court order to perform the work, saying leaking underground gas tanks were threatening the local water supply. It's the latest step in a crackdown on environmental pollution by a special unit of the district attorney's office.

The owner of Alfie's Place, a busy service station, car wash and lube shop, has been fighting for several years with the former owner, Unocal, over the placement of equipment needed to clean up underground pollutants. Unocal agreed in 1995 to clean up pollutants that leaked from its underground tanks before it sold the station.

The owner, Joel Burnstine, said he was shocked Tuesday morning when a police officer, district attorney investigator and construction crews entered his property to begin the cleanup. Burnstine went to court Tuesday to stop the work, but a judge declined to issue a restraining order.

"They came in with heavy equipment, bulldozers and jackhammers and tore up the property," Burnstine said. "John Q. Customer doesn't go to properties that are contaminated. People will think we did it. And the truth is we didn't have anything to do with it."

All sides agree that the contamination needs to be removed, but Burnstine fears Unocal's plans to install equipment at the front of the property will hurt his business. He favors a location at the south side of his station, near Culver and Michelson drives.

"There's a location on the property where the equipment could be placed, and it would impact no one," Burnstine said. "But it would be more expensive for Unocal."

Orange County district attorney officials entered the dispute in May, obtaining a court order that allowed Unocal officials to begin cleanup efforts.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Nicholas Thompson said he sought the court order after Burnstine removed some equipment Unocal had previously installed and then fought Unocal's efforts to renew cleanup efforts.

"It was evident to me over a five-year period that nothing was going to change," Thompson said. "The property owner was unable to resolve this. He was putting his own interests over the protection of the public."

Burnstine said he was disturbed that Orange County prosecutors entered what he deems a private dispute and obtained the order without allowing him to present his side to the judge.

"The real question is, why did they do this in secret?" Burnstine said.

The Irvine gas station is one of hundreds of sites in California that were contaminated by gasoline that leaked from underground storage tanks. The gasoline additive MTBE has contaminated many of those sites, including the Irvine property, and threatened to contaminate underground water supplies.

Thompson said tests have shown that MTBE slowly seeping under the Alfie's Place property poses a potential threat to a "major drinking-water aquifer" a few miles away.

He argued in court Tuesday that the cleanup efforts should continue.

Superior Court Judge Derek W. Hunt declined Tuesday to issue a temporary restraining order, but scheduled a Friday hearing to reconsider the issue.

The district attorney's environmental crimes unit has been expanded by Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas. Its targets include multinational corporations that threaten local drinking water supplies and the city of Huntington Beach, which pleaded guilty to pollution charges.

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Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.

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