After nearly four years, about 300 area residents are being asked by their attorney to drop a class-action lawsuit that alleges they have been endangered by natural gas seeping from a Southern California Gas Co. storage field beneath their homes.
David B. Epstein, the attorney who filed the 1984 lawsuit on behalf of the Montebello and Monterey Park residents, said the plaintiffs cannot afford the costs of battling the utility and the co-defendant, Operating Industries Inc. He is recommending that the case be dropped.
OII operated a now-closed landfill in Monterey Park, abutting Montebello's northern border. The lawsuit alleges that OII has contributed to the problem because waste gas from the landfill has migrated into nearby neighborhoods.
"I have advised my clients in my judgment the lawsuit would probably go on for seven, eight, nine years (including any appeals)," Epstein said in a recent interview. "Many of our clients have decided . . . the cost is so great that they can't afford to risk that expense."
Would Drop Suit
So far, about two-thirds of the 300 plaintiffs have authorized Epstein to drop the lawsuit, he said.
But one who does not want to drop the suit is Leo Escarcega, a retired barber who lives with his wife, Mary, on 19th Street in Montebello. Escarcega lives above an abandoned oil well and he fears gas from the storage facility could leak through the oil well, accumulate and explode.
Gas company workers come by periodically to monitor the well, but they have told Escarcega that so far only trace amounts that are not dangerous have been detected, the resident said. "I'm just here playing Russian roulette with them," said Escarcega, who wants the gas company to buy him out. "When is it (an explosion) going to happen? It's a lot of stress."
Escarcega said he cannot afford to pay an attorney, so he is looking for a community organization willing to help pay the legal fees.
Firm Spent $500,000
Epstein's former law firm--Margolis, McTernan, Scope & Epstein of Los Angeles--took the case on a contingency basis, and spent an estimated $500,000 in legal services, Epstein said. The law firm has since split up and Epstein said he cannot sustain the lawsuit. He declined to comment specifically on the strengths or weaknesses of the case.
"These cases can only be handled if you have a firm that's in a position to advance over a million dollars," Epstein said. "The sad reality is homeowners have these problems and can't find any remedy unless they find someone who's willing to lay out that kind of expense."
Spokesmen for the gas company and OII said the lawsuit has no merit. The defendants have agreed not to seek reimbursement of legal fees if the case is dropped, Epstein said.
The gas storage area is about a mile long and half a mile mile wide. It is bounded by Wilcox Avenue on the west, Poplar Avenue on the east, Lincoln Avenue on the north and Beverly Boulevard on the south.
Natural gas is injected through wells into porous formations that used to contain oil deposits, about 8,000 feet underground. The gas company has used the underground reservoir, which now has a capacity of 12 billion cubic feet, since the 1950s. Methane, which is highly explosive, constitutes the largest portion of the natural gas, and although it's not poisonous, it can be deadly if it builds up in a room and displaces the oxygen.
The utility monitors about 250 abandoned oil wells that once drew oil out of the area and are still connected to or are near the storage reservoir, said District Manager Richard Duran. Most of the capped wells are monitored once a month, but the gas company checks 66 wells near or underneath residential and commercial buildings every two weeks, Duran said.
Leaks from the storage facility that escaped through abandoned wells have resulted in the evacuation and demolition of five homes since the mid-1970s. The most recent leak occurred in 1985, when gas escaped through an abandoned well into a vacant area along Montebello Boulevard, just south of Jefferson Boulevard, Duran said. The leak was stopped and did not affect residents, he said.
"It (the lawsuit) has no merit," Duran said. "We're operating in a safe manner."
Ed Brannon, a spokesman for the state Department of Conservation's Division of Oil and Gas, said the operation is being run safely and the gas company is conscientious about monitoring for leaks and repairing those it finds. The state agency regulates the storage project.
The OII landfill was closed in 1984. It has been declared a hazardous-waste site and is on the federal Superfund list for priority clean up by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Methane and other waste gases from the landfill have been detected migrating from the site into residential neighborhoods. The dump generates mostly methane, but also small amounts of toxic gases, such as cancer-causing vinyl chloride, authorities said. The EPA is taking measures to keep the gas within the landfill's boundaries, and officials say the gases pose no immediate danger to area residents.
A 1984 health study performed by the state and county health departments did not detect an elevated incidence of serious disease, such as cancer, in area residents. But the study indicated that some residents suffered more minor health problems such as sore throats and headaches than people who lived farther away from the dump.
Daniel Spradlin, an attorney who represents OII, said: "I don't believe the lawsuit has any validity at all. I don't believe the gas from the landfill constitutes any kind of a hazard."
The lawsuit alleges that the plaintiffs have been hurt financially because they will not be able to sell their homes for top dollar. The plaintiffs contend that the value of their property will fall when they disclose that gas leaks have occurred in their neighborhoods and that gases have migrated from the landfill. It also alleges physical and emotional damage--headaches, stomach aches and stress--as a result of being exposed to leaking gas.
The lawsuit seeks $200 million in damages from the defendants. It also seeks to enjoin the gas company from continuing to inject gas into the storage reservoir until it takes additional measures to ensure that residents are safe and fully informed of any problems.
In addition, the lawsuit asks for replacement housing for residents who live near or above leaking wells, and free medical exams.
"I wouldn't mind them storing it if I didn't have the well underneath, and I didn't know they demolished homes because of it," Escarcega said.