Spot the Gas Leak

The year in Tony Rackauckas

Four years ago, Republican Tony Rackauckas was elected Orange County District Attorney and quickly announced that his would be a green administration. Within two days of moving into the county Hall of Administration, the former judge and prosecutor threw down his first environmental marker: he filed suit against a catalog of oil companies—most notably ARCO—whose gas stations have leaked into the earth the dangerously toxic fuel additive MTBE.

Fast forward to September 2002—past mounting evidence that Rackauckas is the most corrupt politician in one of the most corrupt counties in the nation—and Rackauckas' ARCO case is mired in controversy. And as the case winds down to its whimpering end, I am calling the DA's office for public records and interviews. His office ignores or rebuffs my every request. In fact, Susan Kang Schroeder—the DA's unofficial media adviser and a central figure in 2002's unflattering grand jury report on corruption—refuses to allow the agency's official, full-time media director to answer a single question from us. In early December, we are told, "Susan says she will handle the Weekly herself." The way she handles us is by never returning calls or e-mail.

So it wasn't surprising when, on Dec. 17, the DA's office settled the ARCO case and invited everyone in the local media to talk with the DA about the deal.

Everyone—except us.

It was a textbook public-relations move. Our brethren in the local daily press corps couldn't think of a tough question to ask and ended up celebrating a highly questionable, pro-polluter settlement. For example, reporters at The Orange County Registerfailed to find (or, worse, did not look for) even one of the numerous knowledgeable critics of the deal. Instead, reporters Larry Welborn and Pat Brennan quoted only Rackauckas and an ARCO spokesman—who were, of course, giddy.

Reportorial incompetence wasn't merely a one-day phenomenon. On Dec. 19—two days after the announcement—the Register's Chris Reed told KPCC's Talk of the City that the settlement was "a real celebration for Rackauckas." The Reg's daily rival was equally saccharine. Demonstrating their ignorance of the four-year-old case, the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times printed this headline: "DA Wins Big Money Pledge From ARCO to Clean Up MTBE."

Big money?

Let's do what the daily papers didn't. Let's consider the $8 million settlement in context: $5 million is to repay the county for legal expenses, and the other $3 million will go to what ARCO was supposed to be doing all along—preventing leaks of MTBE and other toxic chemicals from its numerous faulty underground-gas-storage tanks in Orange County. For an idea of the extent of the leaks, consider that at just one ARCO station in Fountain Valley, MTBE was found almost 700,000 times greater than the danger threshold. Then consider that there were leaks at more than 100 local ARCO stations, each leak threatening the county's precious public-water supply.

But the case revealed an even more sinister element. The DA had convincing evidence that the oil companies did little to correct the problem even though they knew for decades that MTBE was dangerous and that their gas-storage tanks leaked. We know this, in part, because county inspectors repeatedly issued violation notices to ARCO over the years. If the DA was telling the truth in statements made in court filings, ARCO's routine response to the inspectors was, to put it politely, "Bug off."

So we have a company that not only polluted but also did so knowingly and, in the process, violated a long series of laws that called for penalties ranging from $500 to $5,000 per day per leak. The law is unambiguous. It says violators shall pay the penalties. DA sources familiar with the case say that the list of ARCO's extensive violations was so offensive that fines for the last decade alone could have topped $1 billion.

But even with this settlement, the company has paid no county fines as a result of its misconduct. In a legal nuance that favors the oil companies, inspectors who uncover violations are prohibited from enforcing them. Only the DA can force oil company polluters to publicly acknowledge their illegal conduct and pay.

Note that Rackauckas did not require ARCO—now BP Amoco, a U.K.-based conglomerate worth conservatively $80 billion—to pay even $1 in civil penalties or to admit any wrongdoing. And unlike his cocky admonition to Arthur Carmona—the youngster who was wrongly convicted of robbery and later freed when the case was exposed as a fraud in 2000—Rackauckas had no tough words for the world's third-largest oil company. On the contrary, at his press conference, he actually thanked them for their cooperation.

In a Securities and Exchange Commission filing earlier this year, BP Amoco confidently told its shareholders they had no fear of any environmental prosecution against the company—including the Orange County case. Any settlement will have no "adverse effect" on profits, they predicted. Since the DA's staff filed suit in 1999, the company has paid its ordinary shareholders more than $31 billion in profit. Subtracting the $3 million they should have been paying all along to monitor their MTBE leaks in the county, Rackauckas only "won" the county reimbursement for attorney costs.

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