The Multinational Monitor


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Trading Away Civil Rights

THE FAILURE OF FIVE MAJOR OIL COMPANIES -- Ultramar, Unocal, GATZ, Tosco, and Chevron -- to install pollution control equipment at their tanker docks in the South Bay area of Los Angeles violates federal clean air laws, and the government entity authorizing the companies' actions is violating civil rights rules, a Los Angeles community group charged in July. The group, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), charged that the companies have exposed workers and residents in the surrounding communities to tons of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals -- as much as 1.4 million pounds per day.

CBE filed a civil rights complaint against the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) for creating a loophole that allows the oil companies to dodge compliance with the Clean Air Act. The loophole, known as Rule 1610, allows oil companies to acquire and destroy old cars from anywhere in the Los Angeles region in place of installing the proper pollution control equipment at its docks in South Bay.

CBE's civil rights complaint alleges that the car-scrapping scheme, supported by groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund, violates the federal Civil Rights Act by concentrating its pollution in San Pedro and Wilmington -- both communities with majority Latino and African-American populations.

CBE legal director Richard Drury says that tankers unloading oil generate massive amounts of toxic volatile organic compound vapors. Emissions from a single tanker unloading may be as high as 20 tons, depending on the type of fuel being unloaded. Most emissions could be prevented with the proper vapor control equipment, Drury says. Vapor control systems are already installed at seven out of 12 facilities in Los Angeles, and at all marine terminals in the San Francisco Bay area, New Jersey, Louisiana, Texas and Philadelphia, according to Drury.

Vapors include a number of highly toxic chemicals, including benzene, toluene, xylene, and butadiene. Each of these chemicals has been found to cause cancer in humans, as well as depress the central nervous system.

"We are trading our health for oil companies' wealth," says Lily Camarillo, a community leader and Wilmington resident for over 50 years. "My neighbors, my community, and my grandchildren deserve better than to be used as a dumping ground for these companies' toxic fumes."

The oil companies denied any wrongdoing and promised to fight the lawsuits in court.

Tree Crime Stories

A NORTHERN CALIFORNIA JUDGE in July ordered Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) to pay $1.96 million in fines and restitution for causing a 1994 wildfire by negligently failing to trim trees around power lines. PG&E was found guilty in June of causing the August 7, 1994 fire that burned 500 acres, destroyed 12 houses and caused $3 million in damage.

The fire resulted when untrimmed tree branches contacted a 21,000 volt power line. The company was found guilty of more than 700 misdemeanor violations of Public Resources Code requirements relating to mandatory clearance between vegetation and high voltage power lines and firebreaks around power poles.

A PG&E spokesperson says that the company thinks criminal prosecution in such a case is "inappropriate." The spokesperson would not say whether the company would appeal.

Nevada County prosecutors said they brought the criminal case because of PG&E's "history of noncompliance with legal requirements and the ongoing threat to public safety from fires caused by that noncompliance."

State officials said that in addition to the major 1994 fire in Nevada County, "numerous other major wildfires, and hundreds of smaller fires, have been caused in the past several years by PG&E's failure to comply with vegetation clearance requirements."

"Eighty million dollars of tree trimming funds that were collected from California ratepayers were diverted by PG&E to profits," says Nevada District Attorney Michael Ferguson.

Ferguson said that PG&E will not be allowed to pass along to ratepayers any costs associated with the trial or any fines imposed as a result of the convictions.

Polluters Behind Bars

A FEDERAL JUDGE IN BILOXI, MISSISSIPPI in July doled out what is believed to be the longest prison sentence in U.S. history for an exclusively environmental crime. Paul F. Walls, Sr., was sentenced to six years and six months in prison, and Dock Eatman, Sr. was sentenced to five years and three months in prison, for illegally applying the pesticides methyl parathion and Ambush, which contains the chemical permethrin. Walls and Eatman were convicted in earlier trials on 48 counts and 21 counts respectively of illegal application of the pesticides.

Both pesticides are designed to be used in uninhabited open fields for agricultural use only, but federal officials charged that Eatman and Walls used the poisons to spray individual homes throughout Pascagoula and Moss Point, Mississippi.

The misuse of poisons, particularly methyl parathion, may cause various symptoms in humans including headaches, nausea, vomiting, cramps, weakness, blurred vision, muscle spasms and coma.

"Although the sentences were severe for misdemeanor offenses, the crimes for which these people were convicted potentially had devastating consequences for the people exposed to the poison," Pigott says.

-- Russell Mokhiber

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