Environmental Research / City of Fresno v. N.L. Industries, Inc. (USDC CV-F-93-509)

The Story:

Our client, Caltrans (California Department of Transportation), was one of the Potentially Responsible Parties in the clean-up of a seven acre oil recycling facility in Fresno. Caltrans objected to the size of their share of the clean up initially proposed by the other PRP's and the EPA. After our investigation into the actual volume of oil contributed by Caltrans to the site, Caltans' allocation was reduced by over 60 percent.

Site Description and History

Purity Oil Sales was an oil recycling facility that operated in Fresno, California from 1934 to 1975. It was owned by N. L. Industries and situated on a parcel of land that was approximately seven acres.

The facility gathered oil from a variety of sources and recycled it. The cleaning process the company used produced clean oil and petroleum waste. The petroleum waste was dumped into pits on the site that were up to 10 feet deep. The waste was mixed in with construction debris and tires. These pits were referred to as the "backyard" but, in fact, it was the entire seven acres that was involved in the dumping.

Michael Marcus, the owner of the site, filed bankruptcy in 1976 and the State of California took over the site in 1978. Complaints about odor from the oil pits prompted the initial investigation and, in 1980, the Department of Health Services (DHS), the Regional Water Quality Control District and the EPA began investigating the site. In 1982 it was added to the National Priorities List (NPL).

The physical investigation revealed that there was severe soil contamination to 14 feet and continuing contamination to 40 feet. The groundwater contamination extended to 100 ft.

All of Purity Oil's records had been burned in a mysterious fire, including the names of the parties who supplied the oil to be recycled and the amounts each party contributed. Despite the difficulties the lost records presented, the EPA conducted an investigation and, in 1990, Chevron and eighty-eight others, including Caltrans, were named as Potentially Responsible Parties. This number eventually grew to 223 PRPs.

The Case:

Since there were no surviving Purity Oil Sales records that revealed the volume of oil contributed by each PRP, the EPA devised a method for allocating responsibility among the PRPs. The other PRPs who had formed a Joint Defense Committee were pushing for another allocation that would make our client, Caltrans, responsible for a larger share of the cleanup. Caltrans, decided to conduct an investigation of their own operations to determine the total volume of oil that they may have sent to the Purity site.

Our investigative mandate was very straight-forward: Caltrans wanted us to create an inventory of all gasoline and diesel powered equipment used by Caltrans at 18 different maintenance yards over a 20 year period (360 site years of history) and then develop a comprehensive database that would show the total quantity of oil transported by Caltrans to Purity Oil.

To do that we used the following information sources:

  • The manufacturer's operation manuals showing the frequency of suggested oil changes for each piece of equipment. Frequently these manuals had to be located and, if not available, the manufacturers had to be contacted to secure them.
  • Caltrans records for all oil purchased for each yard. These records were distributed throughout the different districts.
  • Interviews with current and past employees from each yard (who had to be located first) to establish the actual compliance with recommended oil changes. Through our interviews, we discovered that this varied a great deal from maintenance yard to maintenance yard based on weather.
  • Reviews of individual maintenance records for each piece of equipment used by Caltrans and, when possible, the numbers of hours of operation for each piece of equipment. Unlike trucks and autos, many pieces of Caltrans equipment had their oil changed based on the number of hours of operation.


Needless to say, it was a large undertaking, but a worthwhile one for our client. In the end, we were able to not only avoid the higher allocation that the Joint Defense Committee wanted but also reduce Caltrans' allocation in the clean-up by over 60 percent from that originally decided by the EPA.

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