SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge denied Pacific Gas & Electric's motion to dismiss claims that residue of its 19th-century plants has been contaminating San Francisco Bay and soil and groundwater for more than 100 years.
The San Francisco Herring Association and a landowner sued PG&E in April 2014 under the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. They claimed that plant operations from a century ago continue to contaminate land in the Marina and Fisherman's Wharf neighborhoods, and the bay water.
PG&E's manufactured gas plants were highly polluting, low-tech refineries used in the 19th and early 20th centuries to create gas from coal. They often spread across several buildings covering several city blocks.
Its three San Francisco plants were in North Beach, in the Fillmore and on Beach Street. Their reduction process created considerable solid and gaseous toxic waste, which leached into the ground, was dumped into waterways or buried onsite, U.S. District Judge William Orrick wrote in his Feb. 26 ruling.
The plaintiffs particularly objected to coal residue solids and coal tar, which contain toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are known carcinogens.
"PAHs are liphophilic, meaning they get up into an organism's fat cells," plaintiffs' attorney Stuart Gross said in an interview.
Gross said the chemical has a long-term carcinogenic effect on humans and is capable of altering DNA.
Co-plaintiff Dan Clarke, who lives in the footprint of the North Beach plant, claims his property has been contaminated.
The Herring Association claims that the groundwater and the plants' old transportation and storage infrastructure continue to convey waste into the bay, harming its Pacific herring population.
Gross said that PAH reverses the orientation of oxygen in herring cells, causing "dramatic die-offs" of adult herring, killing exposed eggs and larvae and weakening survivors.
"The acute mortality is pretty gruesome," Gross said. "There are lots of deformities."
He said that the chemical weakens the herring stock over the long term. The fish return to the bay to spawn for up to eight years. The contamination reduces the habitat, which in turn reduces spawning.
PG&E moved to dismiss the case for lack of standing and for numerous alleged errors in the plaintiffs' complaints.
Orrick found all of PG&E's arguments meritless.
He said that the plaintiffs successfully identified the pollution's point source, adequately demonstrated their injuries and proved that the damage, which PG&E claimed "wholly past," is continuing.
He also affirmed the plaintiffs' claim that PG&E has been negligently evaluating the affected sites by performing piecemeal tests.
PG&E declined to comment. It has 20 days to file an answer to Orrick's order.