Contamination, Toxic Torts, and Environmental Justice

Overview

Litigation over environmental contamination and toxic torts takes many forms, including catastrophic releases of atmospheric contaminants, soil and groundwater contamination. These cases are anything but typical, and the legal theories CPM has employed to seek compensation for the victims of these events may include inverse condemnation, negligence, nuisance, and statutory or regulatory violations. What is typical of these cases is that they require a unique combination of scientific acumen, perseverance, and creative legal thinking. 

Other types of environmental contamination cases have a more complex genesis then an episodic release of contaminants into the air, ground, or water, and often impact vulnerable communities for decades. These cases may involve events spanning years or even continents. They require considerable ingenuity to identify causation, theories of liability, and potential remedies. Often these cases reflect novel legal approaches to complex societal problems. 

Noteworthy litigation that CPM has been involved in includes:

SoCalGas Well Blowout Litigation

Los Angeles Superior Court

CPM represents victims of the environmental disaster known as the Aliso Canyon gas blowout in Porter Ranch, California.  On October 23, 2015, Defendants’ gas storage and injection well (SS-25) failed, causing a massive blowout of methane, odorant and other chemicals into the environment for 111 days.  This created a nuisance for tens of thousands of downwind residents, exposing them to the sickening stench of chemicals in the air and crude oil that rained down on local communities.

This disaster is the largest methane release in world history, with estimates of 100,000 tons of methane released into the atmosphere.  Defendants were Court-ordered to pay for relocation of residents during the blowout and to clean affected homes in the local communities.  Many thousands of people relocated their entire families during the blowout.  Two local schools were relocated for the remainder of the school year.  Thousands of residents became ill as a result of the chemical exposure.

The cause of the well failure was underground surface corrosion of the well’s steel casing.  Plaintiffs allege Defendants knew there were problems with their wells for decades and ignored multiple warning signs of poor well integrity and likely well failure leading to this very type of disaster.  Once the blowout occurred, Defendants were unprepared to stop the blowout.  Numerous failed well kill attempts by Defendants and their contractors aggravated the situation, causing further injury to Plaintiffs.  The case involves more than 30,000 Plaintiffs and seeks punitive damages for Defendants’ conscious disregard of the known risk of such a disaster. 

CPM serves in leadership on the Plaintiffs Steering Committee, in addition to direct representation of thousands of Plaintiffs.

City of Richmond v. Chevron

Contra Costa County Superior Court

On August 6, 2012, there was a terrifying explosion and fire at the Richmond, California, refinery owned and operated by Chevron Corporation. For hours, smoke containing toxic contaminants spewed into the air uncontrolled, dissipating out across the neighborhoods of Richmond’s largely low-income and minority residents. Life in Richmond came to a standstill that evening, as city residents were forced to shelter in place for hours until the fire could be brought under control. Subsequent analysis suggested the explosion and fire resulted from a predictable and preventable corrosive failure in a pipe within the refinery.

Working on behalf of the City of Richmond, CPM assembled a multidisciplinary team of scientists and engineers to determine the cause and resultant environmental impact of the explosion. Through their technical analyses, CPM was able to assemble the evidence needed to seek compensation for the City for the costs it incurred not just in responding to the fire, but in subsequent community outreach and overseeing rebuilding efforts at the refinery.

Kern County Water Contamination Cases

Kern County Superior Court and Eastern District of California

Working on behalf of small, family-owned farms located in central Kern County, in two separate cases CPM assembled multidisciplinary teams of scientists and economists to determine the causes and implications of contamination that had been introduced into the underlying irrigation aquifers, with the result that orchards at both farms were damaged, in some cases to the point that they were no longer viable and had to be torn out and destroyed.

CPM’s analysis included consulting with hydrogeologists to identify the origin and likely transportation pathways for the contaminants at issue. Among other things, these analyses highlighted the impacts of oil extraction at neighboring properties and the subsequent reinjection of produced well water, a byproduct of oil drilling which is characterized by extremely high concentrations of salts. CPM’s experts were able to use statistical techniques to analyze potential mechanisms allowing these reinjected produced waters to travel back up and into aquifers which the farmers had relied upon to provide irrigation water for their overlying farms, and to identify unique chemical fingerprints for these contaminants, which allowed them to be linked back to the original oil extraction activities. CPM also worked with agronomists to identify the mechanism by which those contaminants were transferred from the ground and into the overlying orchards, with the resulting damage to crops. Finally, CPM worked with experts capable of evaluating the impact on the profitability of operations at these farms and on the overall land values.

Earth Island Institute v. Coca Cola et al.

In what is believed to be the first lawsuit of its type, CPM acting on behalf of the Earth Island Institute has brought suit against the top 10 companies most responsible for plastic pollution in the environment, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Nestle, over the misinformation they have spread about the recyclability of plastic and the environmental damage they have wrought. Rather than switch to more sustainable packaging and production practices, the suit alleges that the Defendants continue to spread misinformation about the true causes and solutions to plastic pollution. By convincing consumers that the way to solve the plastic problem is through recycling, Defendants have externalized the cost of their business’ product sales and distribution system— which creates mega-tons of plastic pollution—to the public. Despite being aware that the products are not actually recyclable, the suit alleges that Defendants have continued to mislead consumers by claiming in their advertising, marketing, and promotional materials that their products are recyclable. The lawsuit raises several claims against the Defendants, including public nuisance, breach of warranty, negligence, defective product liability, and failure to warn.

Micheli et al. v. City of Fresno

Fresno County Superior Court

In a case with disturbing similarities to the crisis in Flint, Michigan, CPM has brought suit on behalf of a proposed class of residents in Northeast Fresno related to the degradation of residential plumbing due to the City’s failure to maintain a consistent balance and the resultant chemical characteristics as it introduced groundwater and treated surface water into the residential water that it supplied to homeowners. Research to date suggests that City both failed to account for the oscillating chemical characteristics of the two water sources, and failed to adequately treat surface water it provided to residents. The result was loss of protective layers within the residential plumbing, and resulting corrosion with release of elevated levels of lead, iron, and other contaminants into the residence drinking water. Compounding the harm, the City withheld mandated monthly reports of citizen complaints from the responsible state regulatory agency, and as a result these conditions persisted for years.


Noteworthy Cases

Noteworthy Cases

SoCalGas Well Blowout Litigation

Los Angeles Superior Court

CPM represents victims of the environmental disaster known as the Aliso Canyon gas blowout in Porter Ranch, California.  On October 23, 2015, Defendants’ gas storage and injection well (SS-25) failed, causing a massive blowout of methane, odorant and other chemicals into the environment for 111 days.  This created a nuisance for tens of thousands of downwind residents, exposing them to the sickening stench of chemicals in the air and crude oil that rained down on local communities.

This disaster is the largest methane release in world history, with estimates of 100,000 tons of methane released into the atmosphere.  Defendants were Court-ordered to pay for relocation of residents during the blowout and to clean affected homes in the local communities.  Many thousands of people relocated their entire families during the blowout.  Two local schools were relocated for the remainder of the school year.  Thousands of residents became ill as a result of the chemical exposure.

The cause of the well failure was underground surface corrosion of the well’s steel casing.  Plaintiffs allege Defendants knew there were problems with their wells for decades and ignored multiple warning signs of poor well integrity and likely well failure leading to this very type of disaster.  Once the blowout occurred, Defendants were unprepared to stop the blowout.  Numerous failed well kill attempts by Defendants and their contractors aggravated the situation, causing further injury to Plaintiffs.  The case involves more than 30,000 Plaintiffs and seeks punitive damages for Defendants’ conscious disregard of the known risk of such a disaster. 

CPM serves in leadership on the Plaintiffs Steering Committee, in addition to direct representation of thousands of Plaintiffs.

City of Richmond v. Chevron

Contra Costa County Superior Court

On August 6, 2012, there was a terrifying explosion and fire at the Richmond, California, refinery owned and operated by Chevron Corporation. For hours, smoke containing toxic contaminants spewed into the air uncontrolled, dissipating out across the neighborhoods of Richmond’s largely low-income and minority residents. Life in Richmond came to a standstill that evening, as city residents were forced to shelter in place for hours until the fire could be brought under control. Subsequent analysis suggested the explosion and fire resulted from a predictable and preventable corrosive failure in a pipe within the refinery.

Working on behalf of the City of Richmond, CPM assembled a multidisciplinary team of scientists and engineers to determine the cause and resultant environmental impact of the explosion. Through their technical analyses, CPM was able to assemble the evidence needed to seek compensation for the City for the costs it incurred not just in responding to the fire, but in subsequent community outreach and overseeing rebuilding efforts at the refinery.

Kern County Water Contamination Cases

Kern County Superior Court and Eastern District of California

Working on behalf of small, family-owned farms located in central Kern County, in two separate cases CPM assembled multidisciplinary teams of scientists and economists to determine the causes and implications of contamination that had been introduced into the underlying irrigation aquifers, with the result that orchards at both farms were damaged, in some cases to the point that they were no longer viable and had to be torn out and destroyed.

CPM’s analysis included consulting with hydrogeologists to identify the origin and likely transportation pathways for the contaminants at issue. Among other things, these analyses highlighted the impacts of oil extraction at neighboring properties and the subsequent reinjection of produced well water, a byproduct of oil drilling which is characterized by extremely high concentrations of salts. CPM’s experts were able to use statistical techniques to analyze potential mechanisms allowing these reinjected produced waters to travel back up and into aquifers which the farmers had relied upon to provide irrigation water for their overlying farms, and to identify unique chemical fingerprints for these contaminants, which allowed them to be linked back to the original oil extraction activities. CPM also worked with agronomists to identify the mechanism by which those contaminants were transferred from the ground and into the overlying orchards, with the resulting damage to crops. Finally, CPM worked with experts capable of evaluating the impact on the profitability of operations at these farms and on the overall land values.

Earth Island Institute v. Coca Cola et al.

In what is believed to be the first lawsuit of its type, CPM acting on behalf of the Earth Island Institute has brought suit against the top 10 companies most responsible for plastic pollution in the environment, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Nestle, over the misinformation they have spread about the recyclability of plastic and the environmental damage they have wrought. Rather than switch to more sustainable packaging and production practices, the suit alleges that the Defendants continue to spread misinformation about the true causes and solutions to plastic pollution. By convincing consumers that the way to solve the plastic problem is through recycling, Defendants have externalized the cost of their business’ product sales and distribution system— which creates mega-tons of plastic pollution—to the public. Despite being aware that the products are not actually recyclable, the suit alleges that Defendants have continued to mislead consumers by claiming in their advertising, marketing, and promotional materials that their products are recyclable. The lawsuit raises several claims against the Defendants, including public nuisance, breach of warranty, negligence, defective product liability, and failure to warn.

Micheli et al. v. City of Fresno

Fresno County Superior Court

In a case with disturbing similarities to the crisis in Flint, Michigan, CPM has brought suit on behalf of a proposed class of residents in Northeast Fresno related to the degradation of residential plumbing due to the City’s failure to maintain a consistent balance and the resultant chemical characteristics as it introduced groundwater and treated surface water into the residential water that it supplied to homeowners. Research to date suggests that City both failed to account for the oscillating chemical characteristics of the two water sources, and failed to adequately treat surface water it provided to residents. The result was loss of protective layers within the residential plumbing, and resulting corrosion with release of elevated levels of lead, iron, and other contaminants into the residence drinking water. Compounding the harm, the City withheld mandated monthly reports of citizen complaints from the responsible state regulatory agency, and as a result these conditions persisted for years.


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