Texaco Liable for Damages in Montana Pipeline Leak

Aug. 23, 2004

A jury has ordered Texaco to pay $15 million to finish cleaning up a 1955 gasoline pipeline spill in a small town, as well as $25 million in punitive damages for not doing it sooner.

Texaco had argued that the cleanup in Sunburst, in northwestern Montana, was unnecessary because there was no evidence anyone's health was at risk. The company said the contamination is 10 feet below ground in groundwater too briny for drinking or watering.

The Cascade County jury on Wednesday awarded the plaintiffs $15 million in cleanup costs, $350,000 to cover the plaintiffs' costs of investigating the problem and $767,500 in damages for creating a public nuisance and violating the plaintiffs' right to a clean environment. Jurors awarded the punitive damages Thursday.

District Judge Thomas McKittrick must hold a hearing to determine whether the punitive damages are reasonable.

"We were very pleased with the verdict, because first and foremost it will allow the Sunburst plaintiffs to clean up the contamination," said plaintiffs' attorney David Slovak.

Dan Johnson, government and public affairs manager for Texaco in the Rockies, said the company will appeal.

The lawsuit revolved around a 19-acre underground plume of contaminants left after a pipeline leak at the now-defunct Sunburst Works Refinery.

The company did pump some of the gasoline from the ground in the two years after the pipeline leak, but gasoline-related toxins, including the carcinogen benzene, remain in Sunburst's groundwater and soil.

The lawsuit, filed in 2001, argued that Texaco's plan to monitor the groundwater while nature continued to filter out the chemicals would take too long.

McKittrick had ruled that Texaco could not include in its defense that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality supports the idea of letting nature clean up the spill over time.

The 82 plaintiffs in the case include the Sunburst School District.

Source: The Associated Press