PG&E Settles Lawsuit Over Century-Old Gas Plant Pollution

The utility will cover certain soil removal and replacement costs for excavation projects in a roughly 33-block area of San Francisco for the next five years.

This map featured in ongoing litigation against PG&E shows the location of the Cannery gas plant along with three other century-old manufactured gas plants for which PG&E agreed to a $4.2 million settlement in 2018.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Pacific Gas and Electric will pay to remove soil possibly tainted by century-old gas plants and investigate groundwater contamination in a San Francisco shoreline area under the terms of a deal announced Monday.

The agreement represents the third and final settlement reached in a lawsuit filed in 2014 over pollution from manufactured gas plants operated by PG&E in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Under the deal entered Monday, PG&E will fund a study on how to remove or mitigate contamination from an underground storage tank on the former site of its North Beach gas plant, which stopped operating after it was damaged in the Great Earthquake of 1906.

Additionally, whenever PG&E is informed of an intent to dig underground for a construction project in a roughly 33-block area around two of its former gas plants, it will provide notice of potential soil or groundwater contamination in the area.

For homeowners, small businesses and nonprofits, PG&E will cover the cost of soil testing, soil removal and replacing contaminated soil with clean dirt. Larger businesses will be required to do their own testing, but PG&E must still pay for soil removal and replacement. The deal expires after five years.

“We are going to have finally correct and accurate information being provided to residents and businesses in the Marina and a mechanism to compel PG&E to pay for the testing and cleanup of those properties,” said attorney Stuart Gross. Gross represents Dan Clarke, a former San Francisco homeowner who sued PG&E in 2014.

PG&E settled claims over contamination on Clarke’s former property in the Marina District in 2015. The utility reached another settlement with Clarke’s co-plaintiff, the San Francisco Herring Association, in 2018, in which it agreed to investigate, monitor and report levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, toxic byproducts of the gas manufacturing process. The utility also vowed to create a cleanup plan for groundwater contamination and pay $4.2 million for water quality and environmental improvement projects.

Those settlements resolved claims related to three of PG&E’s former manufactured gas plants (MGPs) — the North Beach MGP, the Fillmore MGP and the Beach Street MGP — all located within a 1.7-mile area on the city’s northern shore.

PG&E still faces a separate lawsuit brought by Clarke in July 2020 over alleged contamination from its Cannery MGP, a fourth former gas plant also located in the Marina District. Last fall, U.S. District Judge William Orrick III refused to dismiss claims over diminished aesthetic and recreational enjoyment of the area, but he dismissed Clean Water Act claims as time barred with leave to amend. The judge said Clarke must show a distinct violation of the Clean Water Act by PG&E within the last five years to advance that claim.

In January, PG&E reached another settlement with the city of San Francisco over pollution from its turn-of-the-century gas plants. The utility agreed to pay up to $190 million to clean up the city’s Marina Small Craft Harbor.  

PG&E’s manufactured gas plants were highly polluting, low-tech refineries operating in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They used oil and coal to create gas for lighting, heating and cooking, often spread across several buildings covering numerous city blocks.

As part of the deal entered Monday, PG&E will fund a study within one year to come up with a plan for addressing residue from an underground storage tank on the former site of its North Beach gas plant near the intersection of Beach and Buchanan streets. If the study identifies a feasible remediation plan, PG&E will submit the plan to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control for approval and “implement that full-scale remedy” under the state agency’s oversight.

Gross said the deal will also help protect the health of construction workers and members of the public by requiring PG&E to take care of contaminated soil during digging projects.

In a statement Monday, PG&E said the settlement “reaffirms its commitment to environmental responsibility.”

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