A San Francisco Superior Court jury has found that gasoline with the additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) is a defective product and that two major oil companies were aware of the chemical’s dangers but withheld the information when they put it on the market.
The South Tahoe Public Utility District brought the product liability case over contamination of the district’s groundwater. In 1998 the district sued after MTBE contamination forced it to close a third of its 34 drinking water wells.
The jury found that Shell Oil Co., Lyondell Chemical Co. (formerly Atlantic Richfield Chemical Co.) and Tosco Corp. (now part of Phillips Petroleum) had placed a defective product on the market when they began selling gasoline with MTBE. In addition, Shell and Lyondell also were found to have withheld information about the chemical. Lawyers for the South Lake Tahoe district presented evidence that the companies promoted MTBE even though they knew it could contaminate water supplies.
MTBE was first added to gasoline more than two decades ago to satisfy federal Clean Air Act requirements. MTBE makes gas burn cleaner. However, it has proved to be a major environmental headache. Spilling from leaky underground storage tanks, MTBE travels faster in the groundwater than gas and takes longer to break down. It also is a suspected carcinogen.
Cleanup costs could reach $200 million according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Nationwide, the punitive damages for MTBE contamination could reach billions of dollars from suits filed by cities, water districts, private well owners and even consumers of tainted water.
The disturbing part of the story is that it was indicated that the companies’ own scientists warned against putting MTBE on the market because of environmental concerns. The companies put it out anyway. In addition, California Governor Gray Davis recently delayed the statewide phaseout of MTBE in gasoline until January 2004 in an effort to keep gas affordable in the state.
In order for a watershed management approach to work (See page 14, Craig Lindell’s, “Decentralized Wastewater Treatment: Community Building and the Watershed Agenda”), industry, regulators and local decision-makers must work together and support it. Clearly, withholding information and then delaying MTBE phaseout is