By Chris Roberts
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
By Mike Billings
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
On Nov. 17, 1986, a small army of state and local investigators, armed with a search warrant and hazardous-waste testing equipment, appeared at the front gate to Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.
During the ensuing 72 hours, investigators took more than 80 samples of sand, soil, and other materials -- half of which were shown to contain hazardous substances -- from areas of the 493-acre shipyard where a private company called Triple A Machine Shop Inc. was believed to have illegally disposed of hazardous materials. Albert Engle, the founder of Triple A, which held a lease on the facility to repair and clean ships, grew so angry that he had to be restrained by employees when it appeared he was on the verge of physically attacking then S.F. Assistant District Attorney Steve Castleman.
The search had been prompted by a Triple A whistle-blower who called Castleman and U.S. Navy reports about the company's conduct to state environmental authorities.
Thus, a nine-year legal battle was touched off between the S.F. District Attorney's Office and Triple A. At its height, the firm was doing $100 million a year in business from its S.F. base and a second shipyard in San Diego, according to Castleman.
Here are the key developments since:
* June 11, 1987 -- Then-DA Arlo Smith files a civil lawsuit seeking an injunction to prevent Triple A from selling off assets, and seeking civil penalties and cleanup costs for illegal disposal of hazardous waste. At the time, Triple A had lost its master lease to run the shipyard and had scheduled an auction on equipment.
* Feb. 9, 1989 -- Smith files a separate criminal case against Triple A, charging it with five felony counts of illegal disposal of hazardous waste. Engle, the company founder, had died, and no company employees were individually charged by Smith. With the filing of the criminal case, the DA's civil suit was put on hold temporarily. (This same year, the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard is placed on the national priorities list under the federal Superfund program.)
* Aug. 3, 1992, a jury delivers a stunning verdict, finding Triple A guilty on all five felony charges, and concluding that it was criminally liable for multiple days of violations for having failed to clean up after itself. Based on the convictions and the findings of multiple days of violations, Superior Court Judge Paul Alvarado fines Triple A a total of $9.2 million, at the time the biggest fine for hazardous waste law violations in state history. Triple A defense lawyer Marc Topel predicts a reversal on appeal, and levels harsh criticism of the jurors, who he claims were biased against the company. (Indeed, in an interview last week, Topel referred to the panelists as "a jury of total morons.")
* June 30, 1995 -- A state court of appeal panel upholds the five felony convictions, but reverses the jury findings of multiple days of violations. It reduces the fines to $115,000 to cover just the proven incidents of dumping. The appeal court rules the evidence at trial did not prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" the subsequent days of violations. "We realize that our reversal ... substantially reduces the fine in this case. We realize also that the People [the DA] did show unlawful disposals of waste sand and bilge water, plus a regular habit of continuous dumping," writes Justice Zerne Haning. The ruling, which was not appealed, becomes final three months later.
* March 13, 1996 -- Superior Court Judge Raymond Arata refers the civil suit against Triple A to private mediation before a retired judge at the request of DA Hallinan and the company's counsel, Topel.
* Aug. 7, 1996 -- The mediator, Daniel Weinstein, holds the first of two mediation sessions among the DA, represented by Assistant District Attorney Debra Hayes, Topel, and insurance company representatives. An agreement to settle the case in principle is reached, before a second mediation session Oct. 2.
* Sept. 3, 1996 -- Castleman, the former assistant DA who prosecuted Triple A in the criminal case, formally severs his consulting relationship with Hallinan over disagreements about the handling of the civil suit against the company.