Jurisdictions Reach Settlement In Gas Additive Lawsuit

BERLIN — A settlement has been reached in a multi-million dollar civil lawsuit against the nation’s major oil companies over a potentially harmful gasoline additive that leached into jurisdictions’ drinking water supplies.

In January 2011, Worcester County, Berlin and Salisbury joined five other jurisdictions in Maryland as plaintiffs in a $20 million civil suit against many of the big oil companies and gasoline distributors, alleging the defendants for decades have added methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) to gas during the refining process.

According to the complaint, even in small quantities, MTBE leaches into the groundwater supply and gives water a foul taste and odor and can render it unusable and unfit for human consumption. 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.

In the years since the suit was filed, nearly all of the named 43 defendants have settled with the plaintiffs in Maryland including Worcester, Berlin and Salisbury. The other plaintiffs in Maryland are Chestertown, Aberdeen, Sharptown and Taneytown.

Last week, it was announced Crown Central Petroleum had reached a settlement with the plaintiffs, the terms of which have not been made public. Crown was one of the last of the 43 defendants to reach a settlement with the plaintiffs and only one remains active. The only other defendant that has not reached a settlement is Getty Petroleum Marketing, which is currently mired in a messy bankruptcy process.

While the terms of the settlements have not been made public, the amounts received by the various plaintiffs are commensurate with the extent of the MTBE contamination. For example, when the complaint was filed three years ago, Worcester Attorney Sonny Bloxom said MTBE had been detected in small doses at just two wells in the county.

For that reason, Worcester was not expecting a big settlement from the suit. Bloxom said this week the county has received two settlement checks thus far, the second of which only amounted to a couple hundred dollars.

“Nearly every case has been settled so far and we’ve received two checks,” he said. “The county wasn’t due a lot of money because we didn’t have a problem, but rather the potential for a problem. Other jurisdictions had larger problems and were due more from the settlements.”

It is uncertain how much Berlin or Salisbury has received from the settlements. When the complaint was filed, Berlin Mayor Gee Williams said the town joined the suit as a plaintiff, but was uncertain when and where MTBE was detected because the samples had been taken so long ago. 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.

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, were just the latest to piggyback on the growing list of jurisdictions around the country 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 has 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.