BERLIN — The city of Salisbury this week announced it had negotiated a settlement in its portion of 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 drinking water supply of the seven jurisdictions, including the town of Berlin and Worcester County.
Salisbury officials announced on Monday they had reached a settlement in the civil suit against 43 total defendants including all of the nation’s major gasoline manufacturers, distributors and their subsidiaries over the presence of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) in the city’s drinking water supply wells. According to the terms of the settlement, Salisbury is set to receive an award of $900,000 from the defendants, which will result in a net $700,000-plus after legal costs are subtracted.
The suit was first filed in the Circuit Court in Baltimore City last January and was transferred to the U.S. District Court in April. Early this summer, the case was transferred again to the U.S. District Court in New York where it was consolidated with a growing number of similar cases filed by jurisdictions all over the country in the interest of judicial efficiency.
The case in Maryland, from which Salisbury has now negotiated a settlement, includes seven total plaintiffs, including the town of Berlin and Worcester County. Other jurisdictions named as plaintiffs in the Maryland case include Chestertown, Aberdeen, Taneytown and Sharptown. While Salisbury has settled its portion of the case, the suit moves forward for the other plaintiffs in Maryland including Berlin and Worcester County.
The plaintiffs allege the oil companies for decades have added MTBE to gasoline during the refining process. According to the complaint, even in small quantities, MTBE gives water a foul taste and odor the renders it unusable and unfit for human consumption. Research shows some people can detect the turpentine-like taste and odor in concentrations in water as low as one part per billion or lower.
Perhaps more importantly, MTBE is a known animal carcinogen that is linked to many potential health problems. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers MTBE to be a possible human carcinogen.
In a release this week announcing the settlement, Salisbury officials said the presence of MTBE was detected in only one of its 10 municipal water wells, Park Well 10 in the City Park, and that the well was shut down in November 2010 once lab results were received. When the suit was filed earlier this year, Worcester County officials said MTBE had been detected in at least two wells in the county at-large although the exact locations were uncertain. Similarly, Berlin Mayor Gee Williams told the Dispatch in April the town had joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff because MTBE had been detected in the town’s water supply, but the exact locations were not known because the samples had been taken so long ago.
According to the statement released by Salisbury this week, the town’s citizens should know that their water supply continues to meet state and federal standards. To illustrate the point, Mayor Jim Ireton, Jr. on Tuesday drank two glasses of water directly from a well that had not been chlorinated or processed.
Sometime after 1979, the defendants started manufacturing and distributing MTBE in order to boost octane levels in higher grades of gasoline. According to the complaint, widespread use of MTBE ended in 2006 when its potential harmful effects became apparent, but its durability and low solubility makes it a persistent danger.
“This case involves Maryland’s most precious natural resource-water,” the complaint reads. “Throughout this great state, public water wells are contaminated by MTBE, a gasoline additive needlessly and recklessly added to gasoline in Maryland.”
According to the release from Salisbury this week, the big oil companies continued to add MTBE to gasoline at varying levels between 1979 and 2007, but the chemical often leaked from underground storage tanks at service stations and continued to contaminate groundwater. As a result, jurisdictions across Maryland, including Salisbury, Berlin and Worcester County, and all over the country, have filed lawsuits to offset the cost of removing MTBE from their water supplies.
“In that litigation, documents obtained from the oil industry revealed that the companies knew when they chose to use MTBE that the chemical would contaminate groundwater, yet they decided to use it anyway, leaving hundreds of water suppliers to clean up the mess years later,” the Salisbury statement reads. “Many states have now banned the sale of gasoline containing MTBE and the oil companies have stopped blending it into gasoline, but they have not volunteered to remove it from water supplies or to reimburse cities which have spent money to do so.”
Salisbury officials said this week they will use its $700,000 share of the settlement to make improvements at the Park Water Plant and Well Field to ensure the provision of a safe water supply.