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D.A. Probes Oil Rig at Beverly Hills High

Criminal investigation targets the possible violation of pollution laws. Lawsuits claim school alumni have increased risk of cancer.

March 18, 2004|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office is investigating the possibility of criminal violations of environmental regulations in connection with an oil rig operating at Beverly Hills High School.

The campus oil operation has been heavily scrutinized since February 2003, when environmental crusader Erin Brockovich and attorney Ed Masry said they were preparing to take legal action against the city of Beverly Hills, the Beverly Hills Unified School District and three oil companies.

Brockovich and Masry blamed polluted air in and around the school's athletic fields and bleachers for cancers in Beverly Hills High alumni. The source of the toxic substances, they said, was the campus oil rig, operated by Venoco Inc.

Subsequent tests by the South Coast Air Quality Management District showed that air quality at the site was comparable to that in the rest of the region.

Masry later filed three lawsuits representing several hundred Beverly Hills High alumni, residents and at least one individual who had visited Beverly Hills and was concerned about future health. About a third of the plaintiffs have been or are being treated for cancers. The rest suffer from other ailments or fear that they will become ill.

At a hearing Friday into state and local agencies' responses to the allegations, state Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) asked whether there was an active criminal investigation into the matter. Peter Mieras, the AQMD's prosecutor, said he was not aware of one.

But Stanley Williams, assistant head deputy attorney for the D.A.'s consumer protection division, said that "we do, in fact, have a pending investigation." Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, confirmed Wednesday that "we're investigating the entire situation," but she declined to elaborate.

In an interview, Mieras said he was surprised that the D.A's office was continuing its investigation, given that the AQMD had imposed civil penalties of $70,000 on Venoco in October to settle three air pollution violations.

For certain violations of California's health and safety code, state law bars criminal prosecution after civil penalties have been paid.

Mieras said he had met with the district attorney's office several months before the AQMD imposed its civil penalties on Venoco. The district attorney asked the AQMD in July to hold off, he said, but subsequently told the agency to "go ahead and settle."

"I don't know what they're investigating," Mieras said.

Ortiz has proposed legislation, SB 1211, that would allow prosecutors to pursue violators of environmental laws on both criminal and civil counts.

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