Apr 26, 2002

Tainted Indifference


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

About the author

Bill Swichtenberg is Editorial Director. Contact him at:
[email protected]