GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Colonial Pipeline Co. has been hit with a stiff penalty by a federal judge who scolded the company for evasive tactics and said he would make an oil-spill lawsuit into a class-action case.
Colonial must pay more than $17,000 in lawyers' fees for Reedy River landowners who sued after a pipeline burst in June 1996, spilling 1 million gallons of diesel fuel into the river, U.S. District Judge Ross Anderson Jr. said.
"They have resisted forthright discovery at practically every step of this litigation, which has had the effect of delaying and prolonging and adding considerably to the expense of those people," he said.
Withholding information and skirting questions are unacceptable, the judge said. "You're supposed to answer them. It's just that simple," he said.
Judge Anderson also said he plans to make the complaint a class-action lawsuit, which will let other property owners join the case, The Greenville News reported Friday. As many as 163 property owners could join the 12 original plaintiffs, their lawyers said.
"This levels the playing field a little bit," attorney Sandy Stern said.
The lawsuit, scheduled to be tried in April, alleges Colonial continued to pump millions of gallons of fuel through its pipeline, knowing there was a defect near the river. The suit seeks unspecified damages.
Stan Turner, who said he lost his cattle business after the spill, said Judge Anderson's ruling provides some vindication for landowners who say the value of their property has diminished. Officials at Atlanta-based Colonial refused to comment, citing the pending litigation.
"It's ridiculous stuff," Judge Anderson said of Colonial's refusal to turn over information about the spill and its inspection process. Colonial contended the questions were not specific enough.
"`How many chickens do you own?' They say that's overbroad and not capable of determination. ... All you have to do is go out there and count the chickens," Anderson said.
The 1,500-mile pipeline, the nation's longest, runs from Texas to New Jersey. Federal officials labeled it hazardous after the spill when other cracks were found along the 36-inch pipe, but later rescinded that designation.
The News reported that Colonial officials knew the pipe was prone to defects when it was installed in the early 1960s and that since 1980 company officials knew of exact locations in at least four states that could fail.
The Reedy River spill killed 35,000 fish and damaged river life for 22 miles in Greenville and Laurens counties.
"You walk along that river and you no longer see fish, you no longer see turtles, you no longer see indigenous life of any kind," said Mr. Turner, who owns 120 acres on the river.