In the largest civil settlement reached under the Clean Water Act, Unocal Corp. of Los Angeles has agreed to pay $5.5 million--including $2.7 million to an environmental group--to end a lawsuit filed against the company for polluting San Francisco Bay.
The lawsuit was filed by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, which claimed that Unocal knowingly and illegally discharged tons of toxic waste into San Francisco Bay throughout the early 1980s, polluting the water and fouling sensitive wildlife habitat.
The $2.7 million will go to the Trust for Public Lands for the purchase and restoration of fouled wetlands. The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund will be paid about $1.3 million in lawyers fees. The remaining $1.5 million will be split between the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Water Pollution Cleanup and Abatement Fund.
“We’re elated,” said Stephan Volker, the Sierra Club lawyer who filed the suit in 1984. “This should send a message to other polluters: Clean up your operations or face the prospect of being hauled into court and paying a substantial penalty.”
Unocal, in a prepared statement, said the alleged violations were the result of a misunderstanding of its responsibilities under federal law. The company denied any malicious intent, and said it has since installed a $64-million waste water treatment facility at its refinery in Rodeo, Calif., about 18 miles northeast of San Francisco.
The Sierra Club lost its original 1985 suit after a one-week trial in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. But that decision was reversed by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1987. The appellate court decision was, in turn, vacated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988.
Eventually, the Sierra Club suit was consolidated with a lawsuit filed by the State Regional Water Quality Control Board. That suit was scheduled to be heard earlier this month, but was delayed by negotiations that led to the settlement disclosed Thursday.
The lawsuit alleged that whenever polluted waste water built up at Unocal’s plant, the company would purge the excess by bypassing its legally required treatment facility and dumping waste directly into the bay. That waste allegedly exceeded state and federal standards for a variety of pollutants, from oil and grease to inorganic toxics and bacteria. The suit also accused the company of failing to tell pollution officials when the excessive discharges occurred, as required by law.
Unocal said that most of the alleged violations resulted simply because the company failed to fully understand the requirements of its federal waste water discharge permit. Unocal said it did not realize it was prohibited to bypass its waste water treatment system, because the waste received partial treatment elsewhere in the plant and was diluted with fully treated effluent.
Once informed by the state in 1985 that such bypasses were illegal, Unocal said it “immediately changed its method of operation.”
The marginally treated waste water flowed into San Pablo Bay, the northern section of San Francisco Bay and the site of many of the Bay Area’s remaining wetlands. Those marshy lands are valuable habitat for spawning fish, migrating birds and other wildlife.
The Trust for Public Lands, a private, San Francisco-based organization that raises money to buy environmentally valuable property for preservation or donation to state and federal parks, said it will use its share of the Unocal settlement to protect not only wildlife habitat, but scenic and recreational resources as well.
“This settlement makes it possible for us to redouble our efforts to protect areas critical to the health of the bay, and to secure for the public some of the acreage that is fast giving way to development,” said Martin J. Rosen, president of the nonprofit land trust.
The Trust for Public Lands already has assembled and bought 500 acres of prime waterfowl habitat along adjacent Suisin Bay for protection by the State Lands Commission.