Bay Area Drum

The Story:

In this environmental case, Nic Smith used effective interviewing techniques to help our client develop a larger PRP list and a more appropriate allocation of clean-up costs at a contaminated site in San Francisco.

Background on the site:

The site commonly referred to as "Bay Area Drum" is located in San Francisco, in an area known as Hunter's Point or Bay View. Hunter's Point has become a marginalized community for over 100 years, with a history of heavy industrial use, including ship building. During 1987 and 1988, in response to community complaints, the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) conducted soil sampling in the area where the Bay Area Drum Company - which ceased operations in 1987 - had been located. DTSC found elevated levels of metals, PCBs and solvents. Additional testing disclosed elevated levels of lead, copper, and cadmium as well.

The site had been used from the mid-1940s until 1987 by a number of different companies, Bay Area Drum Company being the last. These companies all used the site as a reconditioning facility for large, primarily 55 gallon, drums. The drums were cleaned - usually by dumping whatever chemicals were in them onto the ground - reconditioned, repainted and then resold to other companies. Drivers working for the drum reconditioning companies brought the drums to the site from companies throughout San Francisco.

The Case:

We were brought into the case in by Heller Ehrman, which represented one of the PRPs involved in the suit. Their primary concern was that the list of PRPs developed by DTSC was not comprehensive enough.

One of our first tasks was to locate former drivers who had worked for Bay Area Drum Company. Through a substantial documentary review of the files at DTSC, we were able to locate a few drivers, who then assisted us in locating other drivers.

The next task was to interview these drivers to plumb their memories for a list of the companies that they picked up from, as well as how many drums were picked up at each facility.

Several of these interviews were conducted jointly with DTSC and representatives of some of the already known PRPs.

Many of the questions that were asked of the drivers by other investigators were questions unlikely to bring forth the required information, such as, "Tell us all the places you picked up at." When the driver finished relating the names of those companies he could remember, the next question was simply, "Any others?"

Nic Smith began doing his own questioning after the others had concluded theirs. He assisted the drivers in re-creating their work days by helping them to develop a "memory map" through the way he posed questions, such as:

  • " On Monday morning, where was your first stop?"
  • " Where did you stop for coffee?"
  • " Where did you stop for lunch?"

Then following those questions with ones like:

  • " Where did you go after you finished coffee or lunch?"
  • " After you left Company X, what was the next street you turned on?"
  • " Was it a left or right turn?"
  • " After you turned right, what was your next stop? "
By using different methods to help them remember, a much more complete re-creation of their pick-up routes was developed.

A significant number of additional PRPs were identified through this process. When the drivers couldn't remember the names of the companies, business and cross directories were used to determine which businesses were located on the streets they drove on. By then naming those companies, it would frequently jog a driver's memory enough to recall the particulars of each company, such as how many times a week he would pick-up and how many barrels were normally picked up.

Another essential issue that was addressed through these interviews was the question of how empty the drums were when they were picked up. There was a general presumption that the barrels were "empty" when picked up - only containing trace amounts of whatever chemical they had held. A very different picture emerged when the drivers began disclosing that, for example, Company X's barrels were almost always full.

This type of questioning produced additional PRPs, as well as information that was very useful in determining the appropriate allocation of costs for the clean up.

The cleanup was certified as completed by DTSC in July of 2003.

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