Court Rejects Toxic Telephone Pole Lawsuit

On November 6, 2009, we reported here concernining a case of first impression brought by the Ecological Rights Foundation (“ERF”) in federal court in California.  In her decision, dated March 31, 2011, the Hon. Saundra Brown Armstrong, sitting in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California (Oakland Division), dismissed ERF’s  environmental claims brought  against Pacific Gas & Electric (“PG&E”) and Pacific Bell Telephone (“Pacific Bell”).  The Ecological Rights Foundation alleged that the Defendants’ wooden utility and telephone poles were pressure treated with an oil-based pentachlorophenol preservative which was “oozing” to the surface and being washed off of the Poles, thereby contaminating San Francisco Bay and adjacent waterways.  As a result of the migration of this material over time from the Poles into the soils, ERF alleged that “dioxin-like” compounds were released into the environment placing surrounding homeowners, commercial fisherman and the general public at significant risk.  As a practical matter, if ERF had prevailed, PG&E and Pacific Bell may have had to replace tens of thousands of Poles throughout California.

In dismissing the case, which was brought pursuant to the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (“RCRA”), the Court examined the required showings under each statute.  The CWA distinguishes between point and nonpoint sources.  A point source is defined in the statute as “any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel, conduit, well, discrete fissure, container, rolling stock, concentrated animal feeding operation, or vessel or other floating craft, from which pollutants are or may be discharged.”  All other sources of pollution are characterized as “nonpoint sources.”  To succeed, ERF had to demonstrate that the Defendants’ discharges were point source discharges., looking for an attorney ? here is a speeding ticket defense that you can count on at any time.

In dismissing the CWA claim, the Court held that “point and nonpoint sources are not distinguished by the kind of pollution they create or by activity causing the pollution, but rather by whether the pollution reaches the water through a confined, discrete conveyance.”

The key issue in the analysis of ERF’s RCRA claim was whether the chemical preservatives used on the Poles qualified as a “solid waste” within the meaning of RCRA.  The term “solid waste” is statutorily defined as “discarded material.”  Although not defined by statute, EPA regulations specify that “discarded material” includes any material that is “abandoned.”  ERF alleged that solid waste was disposed of into the environment when the chemical preservative leaked, spilled or dripped from the Poles due to rain, and when dust impregnated with the chemical is blown into the air during dry seasons.  In dismissing the RCRA claim, the Court held that the “flaw in plaintiff’s theory of disposal is that in this case, there is no allegation that Defendants engaged in any conduct that resulted in the discharge of the chemical preservative. To the contrary, Plaintiff merely alleges that the purported contamination is the result of natural forces – mainly, rain and wind… Such allegations, on their face, are insufficient to establish that Defendants engaged in the ‘disposal’ of hazardous waste under § 6972(a)(1)(B).”  The Court rejected Plaintiff’s theory that the “passive” spilling or leaking of materials from a place of containment into the environment constitutes “disposal” of solid waste.  In so holding, the Court distinguished prior cases that found that leakage fromgasoline USTs may be actionable under RCRA.  The UST holdings are only applicable to situations where the discharge of hazardous waste leaked or spilled from a container intended to hold the waste.  In contrast, the Court found that “the Poles are not containers; but rather, they were used to suspend wires for the transmission of electricity for PG&E and data for Pacific Bell.”  Thus, liability under RCRA ¶ 7002 did not attach based on the “discharge” of chemical preservatives from the Poles attributable to natural forces, such as rain and wind.

Toxic Telephone Poles?

In a first-of-its-kind litigation, the Ecological Rights Foundation ("ERF") has alleged in a Complaint brought in federal district court in San Francisco that Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E)  is  in violation of the Clean Water Act ("CWA") and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act ("RCRA").  ERF alleges that the treatment of PG&E’s utility poles treated with pentachlorophenol ("penta"), a wood preservative, has resulted in contamination of groundwater and surface water throughout four counties in Northern California — Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, and San Francisco, including San Francisco Bay.  The suit implicates all of the estimated 300,000 utility poles that support Northern California’s electrical power grid. Does ERF expect a court will order that all of those utility poles be taken down and replaced with poles comprised of an as-yet-to-be-invented-space-age-material that does not require chemical treatment, never deteriorates, causes no environmental harm and does not cause hazardous waste to be emitted during manufacture? 

In an article posted on its website, Foley & Lardner, which has been tapped by PG&E, cautions that  this lawsuit potentially has far-reaching implications. The Milwaukee-based law firm notes that millions of utility poles throughout the country are treated with penta or other preservatives, which are necessary to keep the utility poles from deteriorating and to keep electricity and telephone service flowing to homes and businesses.  Significantly, they observe that the environmental impact of the penta-treated poles was examined in great detail by the USEPA when the use of penta-treated wood poles as utility poles was approved.  By approving the use of penta, USEPA found that penta did not cause the significant environmental harm now alleged by ERF. If ERF is successful in San Francisco, where might this type of litigation lead? 

Apart from the serious policy considerations at issue here, ERF’s lawsuit will have to overcome significant legal hurdles, including for starters: (1) that under CWA, ERF must demonstrate that each individual pole is a "point source". It may be difficult to argue with a straight face in federal court that PG&E should have obtained a permit for each discharge from every pole–all separate violations of the statute: and (2) that under RCRA, ERF must demonstrate that PG&E is a generator of solid waste that presents "an imminent and substantial endangerment to the environment. The defendants are not the applicators of the material.  The sub-text of the litigation appears to revolve around  ERF’s unhappiness over USEPA’s past decision making concerning the use of Penta on utility poles. If so, ERF take it up with USEPA and leave our fragile power grid alone!