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California environmental group sues oil companies

CBE logo January 20, 1999
Web posted at: 12:47 a.m. EST (0547 GMT)

SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- More than a dozen major oil companies were charged Tuesday with allowing dangerous chemicals to seep into California's water supply.

The charges were brought by California environmental group, Communities for a Better Environment, in a lawsuit aimed at a multibillion dollar victory enabling the cleanup of allegedly polluted sites.

"Our action today will force the big oil companies to pay for their failure to prevent massive amounts of pollution," Leslie Fields, executive director of the group said in a statement.

The group's suit, which it called the largest environmental lawsuit in California history, charges the companies with leaking chemicals such as toluene and benzene into the water supply from underground storage tanks and from refineries and gasoline service stations.

In the lawsuit, the group alleged that the oil companies violated Proposition 65, a safe drinking water measure California voters passed in 1986, by leaving more than 3,500 leaky storage tanks unrepaired.

The defendants in the lawsuit include: Tosco Corp.; Unocal Corp.; Texaco Inc.; Ultramar Diamond Shamrock Corp.; Atlantic Richfield Inc. (ARCO); Exxon Corp.; Shell, part of Royal Dutch/Shell Group; World Oil; Beacon; Mobil Corp.; BP Oil, Thrifty and USA Petroleum.

"The defendants knew or should know that their activities are destroying this state's water supply as well as threatening the health of California citizens who are dependent, or in the future may become dependent, upon groundwater," said the lawsuit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court.

A spokesman for Chevron, one of the defendants named in the suit, said the company had no immediate comment.

"We haven't really had an opportunity to review this brief, so it would be inappropriate to make specific comment," Fred Gorell said. "But I can say that we do everything we can to avoid spilling gasoline wherever we transport it.

Environmental activists have charged the state's water boards with doing little to stop oil companies and gasoline stations from allowing poisons to flow into the water supply, and say there are now more than 10,000 sites around California where drinking water sources have been contaminated by the petroleum industry.

The multibillion-dollar suit seeks to force the clean-up of these sites, as well as the return of profits earned by companies found guilty of breaking environmental laws.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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