Judge dismisses federal lawsuit in nation's biggest pesticide dumping case

March 23, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- In a surprise move that sent shock waves through U.S. environmental agencies, a federal judge yesterday dismissed a huge government lawsuit against chemical companies that dumped millions of pounds of the pesticide DDT into the ocean off Los Angeles.

The unexpected decision by U.S. District Judge A. Andrew Hauk dealt a severe blow to federal efforts to collect several hundred million dollars to be used to clean up the enormous offshore deposit of DDT -- the largest in the nation.

The dismissal -- granted on the grounds that the government lawsuit was filed too late -- came five years into the case and after $24 million in taxpayer funds were spent collecting evidence. Judge Hauk's ruling that the government acted too late surprised lawyers in the courtroom because the judge has been overseeing the case since it was filed in 1990.

Before his ruling, the Los Angeles judge threw numerous personal barbs at environmentalists, the Clinton administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He called environmentalists a bunch of "do-gooders and pointy heads running around snooping" and "always complaining about something or another."

The suit was the largest in U.S. history alleging damage to natural resources from chemical dumping, and it was expected to be a landmark case in resolving coastal pollution issues. In environmental circles, the case was often compared to the $5 billion verdict against Exxon to compensate for its 1989 massive oil tanker spill in Alaska.

Several lawyers said it was highly unusual for a judge to dismiss such a major case on lateness grounds after presiding over its litigation for so many years. In another unusual twist, the motion to dismiss was originally filed in 1993 by Montrose Chemical Corp., one of the firms sued, and in ruling now in the company's favor Judge Hauk rejected the advice of a special master he had appointed to help the case proceed.

Justice Department attorneys said they would probably appeal, but Judge Hauk handed them another major blow yesterday by refusing to grant their request for an immediate appeal, which could mean an appellate court won't review it for years.

DDT from the Montrose plant in Torrance, Calif., was released into sewers that empty in the ocean off the Palos Verdes Peninsula south of Los Angeles for nearly a quarter-century -- from 1947, when the plant opened, through 1971, when Los Angeles County cut off access to the sewer system because of mounting concerns over ocean pollution.

An estimated 100 tons of contaminated sediments still lie on the ocean floor. The federal government has wrestled for decades with what to do about the contamination, and had turned to the lawsuit to seek funds to help restore the coastal environment.

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