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Bolsa Chica Charges Dropped

Oil rig owner who was accused of polluting the wetlands from 1996 to 1998 pays a $50,000 fine to settle the case.

November 04, 2005|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

Charges of polluting the fragile Bolsa Chica wetlands were dropped this week against an oil rig owner and former Huntington Beach city councilman after he paid $50,000 to settle the case.

John A. Thomas, 66, who ran unsuccessfully for county supervisor on a pro-environment platform in 1994, operated about 50 oil wells in the Huntington Beach wetlands.

In addition to the fine, Thomas funded the wetlands cleanup, which his attorney had estimated when charges were filed in June 2000 would cost millions of dollars.

"It was an equitable decision to settle the case," Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve Yonemura said Thursday.

"There had always been talk about doing that."

The $50,000 was sent this week to the state Department of Fish and Game to cover the cost of the investigation, Yonemura said.

Thomas was accused of dumping 38,000 cubic yards of wood chips and dirt onto 13.5 acres from 1996 to 1998 near the northeast corner of the wetlands, where his rigs operated.

When he responded to the original charges, Thomas' attorney, Julian W. Bailey, agreed with many of the prosecution's accusations but said no crime had been committed.

Neither Bailey nor Thomas could be reached for comment Thursday.

The investigation started after someone reported pollution along Pacific Coast Highway. The State Lands Commission dispatched a pilot to fly over the area, and he reported seeing an oil pool.

The dumping "basically destroyed ecosystems," prosecutor Scott Zidbeck said when the charges were filed. "The plants died; the water dried up."

Steve Edinger of the Fish and Game department said a national wetlands expert had called the damage "the worst wetlands violation he had ever seen."

Shirley Dettloff, an environmental activist and former Huntington Beach mayor, said the settlement seemed fair, considering Thomas had funded the cleanup.

"He shouldn't have done it in the first place," she said, "but he appears to have paid the price."

Dettloff is vice president of the environmental group Amigos de Bolsa Chica.

Like others in the environmental community, she said, she found the original charges baffling.

"He had appeared to have a real respect for fragile habitats," she said. "It was surprising he did not follow through on those promises."

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