SAN FRANCISCO — An eight-year-old lawsuit filed against PG&E Co. for alleged releases of dioxin from stored utility poles into San Francisco Bay and Humboldt Bay has been settled, according to the environmental group that filed the lawsuit.
The Ecological Rights Foundation, based in Garberville (Humboldt County), alleged in its 2010 lawsuit that dioxin, a chemical that causes cancer and birth defects, was carried by storm water runoff from treated wooden utility poles, sawdust and wood waste into the two bays. The settlement was signed by U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg in San Francisco on Friday and announced by the foundation on Monday.
Under the agreement, which will remain in effect through 2026, PG&E will identify storage yards containing treated poles and will test and implement technologies for reducing dioxin runoff to levels that pose lower risk to human health and wildlife.
The technologies could include storage improvements, such as covering poles or keeping them indoors; improvements in storm water treatment; and possibly the use of different materials, such as cement or steel, for utility poles, according to foundation attorney Fredric Evenson.
Evenson said, “Dioxins are among the most toxic chemicals known to science.
“This has been a hard-fought legal battle, but in the end PG&E now appears to understand that dioxin has no business in our bay, and will now take meaningful action to benefit San Francisco Bay’s wildlife and residents who eat locally caught seafood,” he said.
The settlement specifies that PG&E does not admit to any wrongdoing.
“Because environmental stewardship is a guiding principle at PG&E, we are pleased to have reached an agreement with the Ecological Rights Foundation to perform environmental testing on new storm water treatment methods of PG&E’s treated wood pole storage areas,” the utility said in a statement.
“Northern California waterways may benefit from any enhancements to existing power pole storage practices and storm water treatment technologies PG&E adopts as a result of the testing,” PG&E said.
The wooden poles are treated with pentachlorophenol, a preservative that creates dioxin when it is manufactured. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has banned the preservative for all uses except on utility poles, and its website says it “is extremely toxic when ingested by humans.”
The foundation’s lawsuit alleged PG&E stored its utility poles in up to 31 locations in the Bay Area and northern coastal California, including two sites each in Oakland, Hayward, and San Jose and one each in Daly City, San Carlos, Milpitas, Cupertino, Concord, Livermore and Vacaville.
The lawsuit also alleged the dioxin pollution ran into rivers and creeks as well as the two bays.
At the time of the settlement, the foundation had been allowed to do preliminary fact gathering at two storage yards in Hayward and Oakland near San Francisco Bay and two Eureka sites near Humboldt Bay and found treated poles at those locations, Evenson said.
Under the agreement, PG&E will identify which of the other sites also contain poles and debris treated with the preservative. The agreement will also apply to any other waterways affected, Evenson said.
Seeborg dismissed the lawsuit in 2015, but it was reinstated in 2017 by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said the Ecological Rights Foundation had the right to sue under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
The 1976 law allows citizens’ lawsuits against entities that handle hazardous waste in a way that endangers human health or the environment.