Legal Newsline

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Official: MTBE contamination cleanup left Rhode Island 'out a lot of money'

By Carrie Salls | Sep 27, 2016


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Legal Newsline) – Although a lawsuit filed by Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) against 34 gasoline manufacturers is still in its early stages, similar cases filed in other jurisdictions have resulted in positive results for plaintiffs looking to recover the costs related to the cleanup of gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).  

“The one that’s most similar [to the case filed in Rhode Island] is one in New Hampshire,” Rhode Island assistant attorney general Michael Rubin told Legal Newsline, adding that the New Hampshire case is most similar because it was also a statewide action. “That was successful.”


New Hampshire recovered more than $370 million, and Vermont's Attorney General's Office has also filed suit. Cases have been filed in other states, with success in recovering clean-up costs.


Rubin said he could not completely rule out the possibility that gasoline companies may have helped with cleanup efforts in the past, but he said whatever contributions may have been made did not come close to covering the full cost.


“The state’s been conducting these cleanups, and we’re out a lot of money,” Rubin said.


An Attorney General’s Office news release said although many states have now banned the sale of gasoline containing MTBE, and the oil companies have stopped blending it into gasoline, these companies have not volunteered to remove the chemical from Rhode Island’s water supplies nor have they reimbursed Rhode Island for the monies it has spent to do so.


The Rhode Island lawsuit alleges the defendant gasoline companies added MTBE to their gasoline products to boost the oxygen levels in the gasoline.


The concern with the use of MTBE is that it gets into drinking water and can potentially case serious health issues. Specifically, MTBE is known to make drinking water look like turpentine and gives it a taste the renders the water undrinkable. The Environmental Protection Agency said MTBE in high doses can also cause cancer.


Although Rhode Island banned the use of MTBE in 2007, the lawsuit alleges the groundwater in the state is still contaminated as a result of the previous MTBE use.


“Over the past five years, testing at numerous sites and monitoring of production wells across the state has revealed for the first time newly discovered MTBE in groundwater,” says the complaint filed by the Rhode Island attorney general and DEM.

Other lawsuits based on MTBE contamination have alleged that the gasoline companies knew that the additive could leak out of underground storage tanks and contaminate groundwater.


“Although it is no longer in use, MTBE’s effects on our environment persist – threatening our families, wildlife, and precious natural resources,” Rhode Island DEM director Janet Coit said in the release. “It is time the companies responsible for adding this compound to gasoline are held accountable for the costs of cleanup.”


The defendants named in the Rhode Island case include ExxonMobil, British Petroleum, Chevron, Citgo, ConocoPhillips, Shell, Sunoco and Total and Valero among others. None of those companies responded to requests for comment.

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Organizations in this Story

Rhode Island Office of the Attorney GeneralRhode Island Department of Environmental Management