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Prosecutor Quits Over Oil Case

October 26, 2002|Stuart Pfeifer and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

A prosecutor known for her aggressive enforcement of environmental laws said Friday that she had resigned after repeated clashes with Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas regarding an environmental contamination case against the Atlantic Richfield Co.

Orange County sued the giant oil company in 2000 to force it to clean up contamination from leaking underground gasoline tanks at dozens of the company's service stations in the county.

The case focused on the additive MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), a possible carcinogen that officials say flowed along with the leaking gasoline dangerously close to the county's drinking water aquifer.

Prosecutors and an Arco spokesman disclosed Friday that officials have tentatively settled part of the case, which is considered one of the nation's most important MTBE prosecutions.

Officials say a significant verdict or settlement figure -- Arco faces potential civil penalties in the tens of millions of dollars -- could influence similar cases across the nation.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Michelle Lyman, who filed the case and managed it for more than two years, said she resigned after being excluded from settlement negotiations, which were taken over by Rackauckas and a private law firm he hired. Lyman's departure is the latest in a series of personnel shake-ups at the D.A.'s office during Rackauckas' four years in office. Rackauckas declined to comment.

Lyman said she is joining a new state agency that will send experienced attorneys to help enforce environmental laws in rural California counties.

Lyman, an environmental prosecutor for 12 years who specializes in gasoline storage contamination cases, said Rackauckas had prohibited her from participating in settlement negotiations with Arco for at least six months.

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