District Attorney Tony Rackauckas is already under fire for his friendly handling of a 2002 pollution case involving 143 Arco gas stations. Now a new lawsuit provides additional evidence that Rackauckas rolled over for the oil industry-and the press played along.
The bombshell lawsuit came May 6, when Orange County Water District officials called MTBE leaks at Orange County gas stations "reprehensible, despicable" and alleged that the oil companies operated with "conscious disregard of the known risks of injury to health and property." One high-ranking water district official told the Weekly that Rackauckas' December 2002 MTBE settlement-which gave the water district nothing to protect public ground water was "wholly incomplete" and "spineless."
According to the new lawsuit, the water district acted because MTBE soil contamination could eventually "render drinking water supplies unusable and unsafe." The cost of such a disaster-sure to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars-should be paid by the offending oil companies, not local taxpayers, the lawsuit asserts.
MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) is a known animal carcinogen and, if ingested, likely causes cancer in humans. Unlike many gas additives, it is nearly impossible to contain once leaked. It dissolves into water on contact and does not generally biodegrade. One drop is enough to make all the water in an Olympic pool taste like turpentine. Leaks in Orange County are extensive, records reviewed by the Weekly show. The soil at one Fountain Valley Arco station showed 3.4 million parts per billion of MTBE; California health officials say MTBE is dangerous at just 5 parts per billion.
That damage assessment was available to Rackauckas when he let Arco off the hook with something less than a wrist slap. For its role in the most egregious environmental pollution case in Orange County history, Arco might have paid civil penalties and clean-up costs of $50 million. Instead, the DA and Arco agreed that the oil giant-now BP Amoco-would pay his office a measly $5 million and hire a clean-up consultant for $3 million.
At the Dec. 17 settlement announcement, Rackauckas touted his prosecution as "tough," and told reporters he'd made the county's "water safe today and into the future." With obvious delight, Arco spokesman Paul Langland hailed the deal. Having let the toxic gas additive contaminate the soil and threaten the county's water supply, and after ignoring official clean-up requests for years, the company escaped paying even $1 in civil penalties.
There are gullible and lazy reporters throughout Orange County and, sadly, many of them work at the Los Angeles Times. The paper's Dec. 18 post-settlement news story called the payment "big money" for the county. On Dec. 29, Times editorial writers-who must not have read the shocking, fact-filled court case against Arco-said "Rackauckas should be applauded for pushing Arco" around.
Even a cursory check of other MTBE cases proves it was Rackauckas who got pushed. In June, the state settled its case with Arco involving just 59 stations for $25 million in civil penalties alone. A far less dangerous contamination case at South Lake Tahoe prompted a $69 million settlement.
Ignoring that, the Times called Rackauckas' sweetheart deal "good news" because it "ends a costly and time-consuming legal battle." It's apparently better to prosecute a 17-year-old who steals a six-pack from a 7-Eleven than a multi-billion dollar company that threatens the water source for more than 2.3 million people.
The only thing that could prove the Times coverage worse-and further humiliate Rackauckas-would have been for the Orange County Water District to follow the DA's deal by filing its own MTBE lawsuit against gas stations and oil companies. Now that's happened. Five months after the DA's MTBE settlement, water district general manager Virginia Grebbien describes the situation this way: "MTBE and other oxygenates are like a big cloud of contamination looming over the groundwater basin."
"Big cloud"? In December, the Times called the DA's settlement "good news"-on its front page. But the Times ran the May 8 story about the water district suit on Page 3 of the second section. There, reporter David Reyes noted the December settlement but failed to explain why a problem his own paper called "ended" last year was again an issue. The county, Reyes noted without evident irony, is "seeking money to investigate and monitor" MTBE contamination.