A few years ago, Costa Mesa officials installed a sophisticated system to detect underground fuel leaks at the city's corporate yard. But in December 1996, a technician discovered that someone had rewired the alarm system, allowing 22,000 gallons of gasoline to pour undetected through a ruptured line into the ground beneath the yard and two nearby schools.
City officials argue that someone broke into the corporate yard and rewired the alarm as an act of industrial sabotage. But others-including a contractor the city has blamed for the spill-say it's more likely city workers jerry-rigged the system after continuous false alarms.
The city's argument is laid out in a lawsuit alleging that workers on a construction project in the yard drove an 18-inch spike through an underground line carrying gasoline for city vehicles. That incident would have occurred in November 1995, and the leak wasn't discovered until December 1996-13 months later. The city is suing Sequel Contractors and its subcontractors for $400,000.
"The city admitted under oath that the system was bypassed," said James Stout, an attorney representing Sequel Contractors. "Our experts are going to take a look at the pipe to see what caused the puncture."
Bill Morris, the city's director of public services, confirmed that "someone apparently bypassed the system," but, he said, no one knows who did it. "We are in discovery right now."
Records obtained by Stout from two maintenance workers employed by an outside company confirm the alarm was bypassed in April 1996. In their depositions, the workers say city workers at the yard were responsible for the bypass.
Edwin Richards, the attorney representing the city of Costa Mesa, didn't return repeated phone calls.
By December 1996, the system "was alarming continuously." That's when city officials called the alarm manufacturer, Hasstech Inc. On Dec. 19, Hasstech representative Jose E. Rodriguez investigated the problem, alerted Costa Mesa officials to the bypass-and later left city workers with an instruction manual. On Dec. 22, the leak was discovered.
"Apparently, everyone who has these systems bypasses the alarm," said Stout. "They're very sensitive and go off all the time-even when it rains. It takes very little electrical knowledge to shut off the alarm."
Lester Kaufman, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency's underground-storage-tanks program for the region including California, said alarm bypasses occur frequently enough to be a problem. "I wouldn't say the bypasses occur 'all the time,'" he said, "but they happen more often than we'd like."
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Kaufman said he wasn't familiar with the Costa Mesa leak, but he confirmed that bypassing leak-detection alarms violates state and federal environmental laws. He also said he was familiar with the excuse that alarms are often bypassed because they're too sensitive.
"I've heard that, and it's not a good excuse," said Kaufman. "There are alarm manufacturers doing a better job than they have in the past. There's no excuse for not having the alarm on."
In any case, the city has spent the past 10 months cleaning up the spill; city officials figure the cleanup will be finished in a year. Denise Fennessey, program managerfor the county's Environmental Health Department's Hazardous-Waste Surveillance unit, said the cleanup currently consists of groundwater pumping and vapor extraction.
For Stout, who expects the case will go to trial this summer, whatever happens won't be good for Costa Mesa. "The environmental laws were designed to prevent exactly the kind of damage we have here," he said. "No matter what happens, the city will get a black eye."