Oil firm escapes heavy penalties in Beverly Hills cancer case

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The Independent US

An oil company accused of contributing to a cancer cluster among former students of Beverly Hills High School, the training ground for some of Hollywood's most glamorous names, has escaped with a small fine and a promise to monitor toxic emissions from its drilling facility on the campus more carefully.

The settlement, reached with government air pollution regulators, clears the way for Venoco Inc of Santa Barbara to resume full operations at the high school, an oil-rich site in the middle of Los Angeles.

It also puts a dent in the effort by Erin Brockovich, the environmental crusader made famous by the eponymous film starring Julia Roberts, to sue Venoco and the city of Beverly Hills for negligence and wrongful death on behalf of 428 plaintiffs, more than half of them diagnosed with cancer.

One of the mothers involved in the case denounced the settlement as a "small slap on the wrist" for Venoco.

Venoco has agreed to pay a $10,000 (£6,000) fine for what one official described as "concerns about potential emissions from the oil facility". It will also install $60,000 of monitoring equipment to help detect emissions of toxic gases such as benzene, methane and toluene.

Ms Brockovich said earlier this year that her law firm had found dangerous levels of potentially carcinogenic gas. Initially, 21 former pupils with different cancers joined her suit. Publicityencouraged the rest. "I have 300 cancers staring me in the face and an oil-production facility underneath the school," she said. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the two fit together."

Air quality officials disagreed, saying their own tests had shown only minor anomalies. Proving cause and effect in cancer clusters is difficult if not impossible, and experts testified that the numbers of victims at Beverly Hills might not be abnormally high.