Oxygenating chemical MTBE, discovered in water, makes supply undrinkable
The state of Rhode Island filed suit against 34 oil-producing companies Sept. 6, arguing that the entities contributed to extensive contamination of the chemical MTBE — methyl tertiary butyl ether — in groundwater across the state.
MTBE is distinguished by its unpleasant taste and odor as well as its ability to render water sources undrinkable even at low levels of contamination. At high concentrations, the chemical is a possible human carcinogen and has been known to cause cancerous developments in animals at very high levels, according to the American Cancer Society.
Soluble in water, MTBE has been known to leak from underground storage tanks after which it “spreads very far and wide very quickly,” making it “very difficult to remove,” said Lint Barrage, assistant professor of economics and environmental studies.
The chemical was manufactured to oxygenate gasoline to a level that passed Clean Air Act requirements and was widely used in the early 1990s. But MTBE fell out of favor after only a few years when people noticed it was contaminating water sources and sickening those who came into contact with high doses of the chemical. By 2005, it had been banned in half of all American states, and Rhode Island outlawed the chemical in 2007.
“There was never a rule that everyone had to use MTBE,” Barrage said, adding that MTBE was not the sole option for cities to oxygenate their gasoline if it did not meet air quality standards. She explained that many Midwestern states chose to explore ethanol as a solution for oxygenating their gasoline, while most states in New England chose MTBE, the cheaper alternative.
“Ironically, all of this came out of an air quality regulation,” Barrage said, adding that “some companies chose to meet those standards by using a chemical that negatively affects water quality.” Considering this, it is vital that entities like the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are funded consistently to ensure that research on chemical alternatives, pollutants and additives is ongoing, Barrage said.
Considering most contaminations began to occur years ago, the state has already remediated a number of previously polluted sites, said Amy Kempe, public information officer for Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin.“There have been numerous contaminations throughout Rhode Island, some small and some larger, like in Pascoag,” she added, referencing one of the most well-known cases in the state.
The Pascoag episode began with the discovery of MTBE in public drinking water in September 2001. It was determined that the chemical had been leeching from a singular gas station, necessitating a remediation effort that would last for more than a decade and remove 3,100 gallons of gasoline from groundwater reserves. A class action suit brought against ExxonMobil in that instance resulted in a $7 million settlement for residents affected by the contamination.
In filing suit, the state argued that oil companies were liable for violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act by not taking all necessary precautions when handling underground storage tanks of the chemical, resulting in contamination. In addition, the companies are held liable for marketing and manufacturing a deficient product that they knew would contaminate groundwater resources.
The state hopes to recover compensatory damages equal to the cost of investigation, cleanup and prevention of MTBE contamination. The state is seeking punitive damages in the suit, reflective of the circumstances caused by oil producers’ “willful, wanton, malicious, oppressive, fraudulent … and outrageously reprehensible conduct,” according to the text of the lawsuit.
While the attorney general maintains control over the lawsuit, the state is joined by Baron and Budd, P.C. and Weitz and Luxenberg, P.C., two law firms familiar with environmental lawsuits specifically dealing with MTBE contamination. The two firms together also facilitated a $423 million settlement between oil-producing companies and 153 public water providers in 20 states in 2008.
Source: http://www.browndailyherald.com, September 20, 2016
By: Kyle Borowski
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The state has filed suit in federal court against nearly three dozen oil companies for contaminating groundwater with the gasoline additive MTBE that was used to boost engine performance until it was banned in Rhode Island in 2007.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin and the Department of Environmental Management seeks to recover the cleanup costs associated with MTBE, methyl tertiary butyl ether, which has leaked from underground storage tanks and contaminated groundwater supplies and soils in Rhode Island.
The most notable case was the contamination of drinking water in Burrillville, which resulted in the closure of wells in 2001. Despite the state ban in 2007, new instances of contamination continue to be found in Rhode Island because MTBE persists in the environment, according to the lawsuit.
“Over the past five years, testing at numerous sites and monitoring of production wells across the State has revealed for the first time newly discovered MTBE in groundwater,” the complaint says.
Low levels of MTBE, which was in use from 1979, can make water undrinkable because of the turpentine-like odor and taste of the chemical compound. At high doses, it is considered a potential human carcinogen, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“MTBE has caused significant groundwater contamination throughout Rhode Island,” DEM director Janet Coit said in a statement. “And although it is no longer in use, MTBE’s effects on our environment persist — threatening our families, wildlife and precious natural resources.”
In previous legal actions against the oil industry for MTBE contamination in other parts of the country, documents obtained from gasoline manufacturers revealed that they knew the compound would leak from storage tanks and taint water supplies, according to the attorney general’s office and the DEM.
They say that even though the State of Rhode Island is continuing to clean up contaminated sites, the oil companies have failed to voluntarily offer reimbursement.
“The State has incurred significant costs to remove MTBE from sites where it has leaked into soils and groundwater, costs that should not be borne by the State or by taxpayers but by the companies who knew that their product would cause this contamination,” Kilmartin said.
The list of 34 defendants includes ExxonMobil, British Petroleum, Chevron, Shell, Sunoco and ConocoPhillips.
Rhode Island Sues 34 Oil Companies Over MTBE Gas Additive Contamination
September 12, 2016
Rhode Island is suing 34 oil companies for using a gasoline additive that has contaminated groundwater in the state.
Democratic Attorney General Peter Kilmartin said Tuesday the state aims to recover money for the cleanup of methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE. He says he’s hired outside law firms, including one that worked on similar litigation in New Hampshire and Vermont.
New Hampshire sued Exxon Mobil Corp. and other oil companies in 2003 for damages to remediate MTBE contamination, saying Exxon knew it was supplying a product that’s more difficult to clean up than other contaminants.
The U.S. Supreme Court said in May it wouldn’t hear Exxon’s appeal of a $236 million judgment in the case. Irving, Texas-based Exxon says MTBE lawsuits “represent legislative second guessing” of decisions made decades ago to protect human health and the environment.