Water Suit Transferred To U.S. District Court

BERLIN — The $20 million plus civil suit filed by Worcester County, the town of Berlin, the city of Salisbury and seven other jurisdictions in Maryland against the nation’s major oil companies will heard by a U.S. District Court judge who has years of experience in adjudicating similar cases.

The suit, filed in the Circuit Court in Baltimore City in January, was transferred in April to the U.S. District Court in Maryland. This week, the suit was moved again, this time to the U.S. District Court in New York, to take advantage of a presiding judge’s lengthy history of hearing and ruling on similar suits filed by other jurisdictions around the country.

Judge Shira Scheindlin has presided over dozens of similar cases, making the decision to move Worcester County, Berlin, Salisbury and the other jurisdictions’ case to New York a matter of judicial economy, according to an order released this week.

“In presiding over these cases for seven years, the Honorable Shira Scheindlin has nessarily become familiar with the parties, the issues and nuances of the cases,” the order to transfer the case reads. “In addition, she has coordinated discovery and motion practice efficiently and effectively, ensuring that the litigation benefits all parties with the least burden.”

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 very small quantities, MTBE gives water a foul taste and odor that renders the water unusable and unfit for human consumption. Research has show 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. In Worcester County, for example, MTBE was detected in at least two wells in the county at large although the locations have not been made public.

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.

Utilizing Scheindlin’s vast experience in presiding over other cases was largely responsible for transferring the suit to her jurisdiction in New York.

“Judge Sheindlin, more importantly, has ruled on numerous substantive legal issues to most or every MTBE case that involved months of research, briefing and argument,” the order reads. “She has written dozens of opinions amounting to thousands of pages of sophisticated factual and legal analysis of the issues common to all MTBE cases.”

The decision to move the case to New York was made after each of the parties agreed to the transfer.

 “The transfer prevents needless duplication of years of effort,” the order reads. “Plaintiffs and defendants alike enjoy the benefit of litigating issues in a common contextual framework developed over years of hearings, arguments and briefing before Judge Sheindlin. If the cases were not transferred, another court would be forced to spend countless hours and resources to develop a similar understanding.”

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. 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. 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.