AWWA Video: U.S. Senate May Let Oil/Gas Industry Off the Hook for Water Pollution Across America

Local Communities Could Be Stuck With $29B Clean Up Tab

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) has produced and distributed to TV news stations nation-wide a Video News Release (VNR) to spread the word that next week, the U.S. Senate is considering legislation that will straddle local utilities and communities with paying an estimated $29 billion in MTBE water pollution clean-up.

The full VNR can be viewed by clicking on the 'advocacy' box on the front page of AWWA's website, For a hard copy of the VNR to distribute to your local television station, please contact Andrew Hudson at [email protected].

Established in 1881, AWWA is the oldest and largest nonprofit scientific and educational organization dedicated to safe drinking water in North America. AWWA has over 56,000 members worldwide and its 4,500 utility members serve 80 percent of America's population.

MTBE was first used as an inexpensive fuel additive to help clean the air. But hundreds of cities throughout America soon found the chemical contaminating their water supply. The EPA has identified MTBE as a possible human carcinogen that renders water undrinkable due to its foul taste and odor of paint thinner. MTBE is now banned in 17 states.

The Orange County Water District (OCWD) is the latest community to have filed suit against the oil industry including MTBE manufacturers and other responsible parties. The lawsuit, filed in Orange County Superior Court earlier this month, seeks to recover funds needed to investigate, monitor and remove MTBE and other gasoline oxygenate contamination of the soil, groundwater and drinking water supplies of Orange County.

As part of the AWWA VNR, Virgina Grebbien, General Manager of the Orange County Water District, described her frustration with the legislation and the prospect that the petroleum industry may be let off the hook for any of the clean-up costs.

"The oil companies knew this chemical was defective," Ms. Grebbien said. "They knowingly placed it into their gas stations and areas where they knew it would migrate into the drinking water aquifer and they need to be held accountable for their actions."

Several lawsuits brought against the producers of MTBE by local communities have been successful, but without legal protection, water utilities fear that producers will have little incentive to clean up contaminated water supplies. The contamination also leaves local
communities' with the costs for acquisition of new sources of water, such as new pipelines and wells.

Moreover, the MTBE industry knew of the additive's environmental dangers long before it was put in use to meet the oxygenate requirement. While MTBE was the most inexpensive solution at the time of the
oxygenate requirement, documents uncovered in a lawsuit by the South Tahoe Public Utility District against eight oil companies demonstrated the MTBE industry's knowledge since the early 1980s that the product spread rapidly in groundwater and was difficult to clean up.

MTBE enters groundwater primarily from leaking underground storage tanks at gas stations and because MTBE is extremely soluble, it moves much farther and faster in water than the other ingredients in gasoline, making it difficult to clean up. Gasoline leaking from underground storage tanks has been responsible for contaminating drinking water wells across the country with MTBE. Recent studies estimate that it would cost $29 billion to clean up more than 500 public drinking-water wells and 45,000 private wells throughout the nation that are contaminated with MTBE.

"Communities really need to be concerned about MTBE because it spoils the water system," said Jack Hoffbuhr, Executive Director of AWWA. "If Congress allows the oil industry liability immunity, the communities will be the ones paying the tab for the MTBE water pollution clean-up."


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