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Sierra Club v. Union Oil Co. of Cal.

ELR Citation: 16 ELR 20007
Nos. No. C-84-3435 SC, 23 ERC 1487/(N.D. Cal., 11/05/1985) Summary judgment for defendant on liability

The court rules that a state-issued national pollutant discharge elimination system permit that does not excuse violations caused by "upsets" is nonetheless governed by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules excusing such violations where state law bars state requirements more stringent than those of the federal government. The court first rules that the upset defense in EPA regulations is available to defendant, because California law bars enforcement of state provisions more demanding than those of federal law unless required to ensure compliance with state water quality standards. Since there was no finding that the allowance of upsets by defendant would jeopardize water quality limits, the upset exception must be read into defendant's permit. The court then rules that most of defendant's alleged violations were caused by upsets, unintended conditions reasonably beyond defendant's control. Plaintiffs' evidence indicates that 13 of the alleged 75 violations were not really exceedances of defendant's permit limits. Over 50 exceedances were due to unusually heavy rainfall that in two consecutive winters exceeded the 100-year maximum. Such incidents of excess pollution, the court rules, are beyond defendant's control and qualify as upsets. The court also rules that the few exceedances due to equipment malfunctions were also excused as upsets. Since the violations alleged by plaintiffs were virtually all excusable as upsets, the court grants defendant's motion for summary judgment.

[Other opinions in this case appear at 15 ELR 20890 and 16 ELR 20005.]

Counsel are listed at 16 ELR 20005.