HOUSTON (CN) - AT&T admits that its underground fuel storage tanks have leaked gasoline and carcinogenic benzene into groundwater for years, threatening the public water supply, but the company's "suggested approach was to 'do nothing' because it would be 'too much of a hassle to remove'" the leaking tanks, Harris County and Texas say in Harris County Court.
The state and county say AT&T and several of its subsidiaries, including Southwestern Bell Telephone, violated the Texas Water Code.
According to the 40-page complaint, AT&T decided to buy gasoline in bulk for its vehicles, and buried hundreds of thousands of gallons of it in underground storage tanks throughout Harris County.
"AT&T's underground gasoline tanks are located in communities near homes, schools, churches and public and private drinking water wells. In public documents, AT&T has admitted its underground tanks have leaked chemicals into the environment and have done so for years, affecting the neighborhoods across the county," the complaint states.
"In addition to the fact that AT&T's actions have violated state and local laws regulating underground storage tanks and the protection of the environment, Harris County's already limited resources have been further strained by the need to address contamination left behind by AT&T."
Harris County says AT&T has long been aware of problems with its storage tanks, as California filed a similar lawsuit against the company in 2006, and AT&T paid $25 million in civil penalties to that state.
"In Harris County alone, AT&T has admitted that it has 34 leaking underground fuel storage tanks, and that at least 13 of those tanks have been allowed to pollute the groundwater with gasoline and hazardous substances that are known to cause harm and adverse health effects to humans and the environment," the complaint states.
The county claims AT&T and its consultants have taken a "cavalier attitude" toward its water pollution, as shown by its communications with state regulators.
In one case, "AT&T learned that a sewer line near one of AT&T's leaking USTs [underground storage tanks] contained explosive concentrations of leaked gasoline. In response, AT&T's consultants told the state that AT&T's suggested approach was to 'do nothing' because it would be 'too much of a hassle to remove' the leaking UST out of the ground," according to the complaint.
"Although AT&T apparently believes that it is more convenient to let Harris County and its citizens address the contamination, the law specifically provides for Harris County and its citizens to recover civil penalties for such impacts," the county says.
Harris County says though AT&T allowed the pollution to continue for more than a decade in some instances it chose "to watch and wait rather than to actively clean up and remove its hazardous substances from the groundwater in Harris County."
AT&T's actions are in sharp contrast to public proclamations it made in its 2010 Code of Business Conduct such as, "We are deeply committed to environmental sustainability," and "AT&T is committed to complying with all applicable environmental laws and regulations," the county says.
In the 1980s the threat of leaking underground storage tanks led Texas to enact laws and regulations to address the problem.
"In Harris County alone, there have been over 3,900 documented instances of leaking USTs. These USTs pose a risk to the nation and county's drinking water. Research has shown that one pin-sized hole in a UST leaking one drop per second can release 400 gallons of gasoline containing hazardous substances, which, in sufficient exposures, can cause adverse human health consequences," the complaint states.
The state and county provide detailed information about 12 sites around the county where AT&T's or its affiliates' storage tanks have leaked contaminants into the groundwater, including two in downtown Houston.
The state and county seek maximum penalties permitted by law for AT&T's violations of the Texas Water Code, which AT&T allegedly has violated for at least 32,000 days.
They also seek damages for trespass and negligence, and the costs of cleanups.
The state and county are represented the Harris County Attorney with assistance from Debra Tsuchiyama Baker, of Connelly, Baker & Wotring.Follow @@cam_langford
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