International Port v. Oil Company -- Environmental Historical Research

Summary:

On an environmental case involving a large international port and an oil company, Parrent Smith investigators undertook intensive original historical research and were able to provide evidence that helped defense counsel secure a favorable settlement of the case.

The Story:

The lawsuit alleged that the oil company, which had been located at a particular berth in this port since 1916, had not fulfilled its contract in restoring the land to its pre-1916 condition when it vacated the berth in the late 1980s. Our task was to do historical research on the port area surrounding the oil company site, primarily for the period prior to 1916. Our investigator obtained reading privileges at the Huntington Library, a private collection that was home to the papers of three former companies that had operations at the port on or near the oil company site before 1916.

By going through company letters and records, as well as old maps and deeds, we were able to establish that one company, a shipping and transportation company, had regularly shipped oil from the site as early as 1902 and that it berthed oil-fueled ships at the adjacent berth. We determined that another company had placed two large oil tanks on trestles in the vicinity of the site by 1902, and that these tanks were destroyed when a railroad company built new railroad tracks through the area in 1905. We established that the railroad tracks and the trestles on which tracks in the area were built, as well as the wharves in the area then, were made with lumber treated with creosote. And, we located underground gas pipes that had been laid in the area prior to 1916.

In addition to this site specific evidence, we uncovered general evidence that oil was cheap and extremely plentiful in that area at that time and was therefore often simply dumped or spilled rather than properly moved or stored when it wasn't needed. Also, we provided evidence that other oil companies had been active in other areas of the port prior to 1916 and that the area our client leased was on landfill made from dredging other areas of the port that may have been contaminated.

The picture of the pre-1916 port that we were able to paint - busy, dirty and handling lots of oil - was very different from the often-held idea of pristine, unspoiled turn-of-the-century seaports, making the burden on our client to return the site to its original state much lower. As a result, defense counsel was able to achieve a fair and favorable settlement in the case.

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