Local Jurisdictions Join $20M Suit Against Oil Companies

BERLIN — Worcester County, the town of Berlin and the city of Salisbury are among seven jurisdictions in Maryland listed as plaintiffs in a $20 million-plus civil suit against the nation’s major oil companies over a potentially harmful and perhaps deadly gasoline additive that has leached into the jurisdictions’ drinking water supply.

The suit was filed in the Circuit Court in Baltimore City in January and was transferred this week to the U.S. District Court. Seven jurisdictions in Maryland are named as plaintiffs in the suit, including the Worcester County Commissioners, the town of Berlin and the city of Salisbury on the Lower Shore. Other plaintiffs include Chestertown, Aberdeen, Sharptown and Taneytown. The suit names 43 total defendants including all of the nation’s major gasoline manufacturers and distributors and their subsidiaries.

The plaintiffs allege the oil companies for decades have added methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) to gasoline during the refining process. According to the complaint, even in small quantities, MTBE gives water a foul taste and odor that renders the water unusable and unfit for human consumption. Research shows that some people can detect the distressing turpentine-like taste or odor at concentrations in water as low as one part per billion or lower.

MTBE is also a known animal carcinogen that is linked to many potential human health problems. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers MTBE to be a possible human carcinogen.

According to the complaint, the presence of MTBE has been detected in at least one public drinking well in each of the jurisdictions named as plaintiffs in the suit. Worcester County Attorney Sonny Bloxom said this week MTBE was detected in at least two wells in the county at large although he wasn’t certain of the locations. Berlin Mayor Gee Williams said the town joined the suit as a plaintiff, but he was uncertain when and where MTBE was detected in the town’s water supply because the samples were taken so long ago.

There is certainly a precedent for jurisdictions winning big settlements from the major oil companies over the presence of MTBE in their water supplies. In 2008, 153 jurisdictions in 17 states were awarded a $422 million settlement after a lengthy litigation process.

The seven jurisdictions in Maryland in the current suit, including Worcester, Berlin and Salisbury, are just the latest to piggyback on the growing list of jurisdictions lining up against the oil companies.

“This case involves Maryland’s most precious natural resource — water,” the complaint reads. “Throughout this great state, public water wells are contaminated by methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). MTBE is a gasoline additive needlessly and recklessly added to gasoline in Maryland. MTBE is a possible human carcinogen, a known animal carcinogen, and even very small amounts impart a foul taste and odor to water.”

According to the complaint, widespread use of MTBE in gasoline ended in 2006 when its potential harmful effects became apparent, but its durability and low solubility makes it a persistent danger.

“Despite knowing that MTBE has unique characteristics in water which allows it to contaminate water sources never seen before its addition to gasoline, these defendants chose to make it the second largest chemical manufactured in the United States,” the complaint reads. “In doing so, these defendants have unleashed an unprecedented assault on the water supplied to the citizens of Maryland. At least one of each of the plaintiff’s wells have been contaminated with MTBE.”

MTBE is produced from methanol and isobutylene, a by-product of the gasoline refining process and is not found in gasoline unless someone adds it. Sometime after 1979, the defendants started manufacturing and distributing gasoline with MTBE in order to boost the octane level in higher grades of gasoline. According to the complaint, MTBE was not the only viable option to achieve higher octane in gasoline. Instead, its use reflected a choice and preference of the defendants to make money off gasoline refining waste byproducts.

Since the early 1990s, the defendants have added MTBE to gasoline in much higher concentrations, roughly five times the levels used when it was first added to gasoline. The defendants allege the addition of MTBE to gasoline helps the fuel burn more efficiently to reduce air pollution, but the complaint asserts the oil companies simply inserted MTBE into their products to increase their own profits.

“It is now apparent that MTBE did not even deliver the promise of cleaner air,” the complaint reads. “Contrary to industry assurances, MTBE did little or nothing to reduce such air-polluting car emissions as carbon monoxide or smog precursors. … Whenever gasoline with MTBE leaks, spills or is otherwise released into the environment, the MTBE races through underground water reservoirs, spreading faster and farther than other chemical components contained in gasoline, reaching the water table and soon contaminating wells that draw from the affected underground aquifers,” the complaint reads.