FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASEEPA
Thursday, June 1, 2000(212) 637-3670
WWW.USDOJ.GOVTDD (202) 514-2008
Man Ordered To Pay $4.74 Million for Failing
to Clean Up Gasoline Leak that Contaminated Residential Drinking Water
New York, N.Y. - U.S. District Judge Norman Mordue in Syracuse has ruled that Oliver Hill, the former owner and operator of a gas station in Onondaga Nation territory, is liable for a penalty of $4,746,500 for violating a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cleanup order. The case against Hill was brought by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of New York and EPA after Hill ignored a 1995 EPA order to clean up an estimated 10,000 gallons of gasoline that had leaked from underground tanks at his gas station and seriously contaminated an underground aquifer used for drinking water by nearby residents, including children. Judge Mordue imposed the fine based on the recommendation of U.S. Magistrate Judge Gustave DiBianco after a January trial in Syracuse. The fine is the largest ever imposed after a trial for a violation of an EPA cleanup order under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
"This high penalty punishes Mr. Hill for refusing to comply with an EPA order and putting the health of Indian families at risk," said Lois Schiffer, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division at the Justice Department. "We will aggressively pursue others who threaten public health by shirking their responsibilities."
"We could not be more pleased with Judge Mordue's decision that Oliver Hill is liable for the maximum penalty the law allows for his egregious violations," said Jeanne M. Fox, EPA Regional Administrator. "Hill's indifference to the harm his negligence posed not only to the environment but to the health of his neighbors -- including small children - is shocking. He totally failed to comply with EPA's order to clean up the mess he caused, and for that, he will pay a very hefty price. This judgement is a serious warning to those who choose to ignore the laws that protect our environment."
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act is the federal law that regulates the disposal of hazardous and solid waste as well as underground storage tanks. In cases of "imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment," RCRA empowers EPA to order entities to remediate contamination resulting from their disposal of waste.
Oliver Hill operated a service station on the Onondaga Nation Reservation from 1984 until April 1993. When he closed the station, Hill left gasoline in the tanks and did not inspect the underground pipes connecting the tanks to the gas pumps. On October 8, 1994, a resident living near the gas station reported a strong odor of gasoline coming from a well he was digging on his property. A day later, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) responded to the report and took samples from the shallow aquifer used as a source of drinking water by nearby residents. The Onondaga Nation made a formal request to EPA shortly thereafter for federal assistance in addressing this release of petroleum, and expressed concern about the safety of the Nation's drinking water. Indeed, the water samples taken by NYSDEC contained levels of harmful contaminants 10,000 times the concentrations allowed in drinking water. The contaminants included benzene - a known human carcinogen - toluene, xylene and ethyl benzene - all chemicals found in gasoline. It was determined that an estimated 10,000 gallons of gasoline had been released into the soil and groundwater from Hill's facility over an extended period. Testimony at the trial confirmed that improperly installed fittings on the underground piping of Hill's gas storage tanks, which were the source of the contamination, were so loose they could be turned by hand. The soil under the loose fittings was saturated with gasoline.
NYSDEC hired a contractor to clean up the contaminated soil and to construct a system of groundwater monitoring and treatment wells to remove the gasoline. NYSDEC also supplied bottled water to affected homes. The state agency asked Hill to assume the costs of the cleanup, but he denied responsibility for the release. Given Hill's refusal to cooperate and the imminent and substantial endangerment to the environment and human health posed by the release, EPA issued a RCRA order to Hill in March 1995 to complete the cleanup work NYSDEC had begun and to properly close faulty underground storage tanks and associated equipment. Hill never contacted EPA and did not meet any of the deadlines or requirements of the order.
Under the law, cash penalties for violations are based on the seriousness of the violations and any economic benefit the violator obtained by not correcting the violations. By not complying with the order and keeping any money he would have spent on the cleanup for himself, DOJ proved at trial that Hill benefitted in the amount of $1,641,190. The $4,746,500 penalty imposed by Judge Mordue incorporates this economic benefit and a penalty based upon the extremely serious nature of the violations..
Groundwater treatment will continue at the site to remove as much gasoline as possible, although the contaminated aquifer may never again be usable as a source of drinking water. Nearby residents were supplied with bottled water when the gasoline release was discovered in 1994, and have since been hooked up to the town water supply.