Oil firms, residents await effect of MTBE provision

Energy bill doesn't shield companies from lawsuits stemming from leaks

August 07, 2005|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The Exxon gas station suspected in one of the largest instances of well contamination recorded in Maryland is gone, but the legal battle over its impact on the health of residents and the value of their properties is just gearing up.

Workers demolished the station at Routes 165 and 152 in Fallston last week, just days after Congress passed an energy bill that requires oil companies to defend themselves against lawsuits stemming from the kind of MTBE leaks that contaminated nearly 200 wells in the Upper Crossroads section of Harford County.

In a compromise that cleared the way for passage of the country's first energy bill in a decade, House Republicans dropped a provision that would have protected producers of MTBE - methyl tertiary butyl ether, a potentially cancer-causing gasoline additive - from many environmental lawsuits.

The agreement bolsters at least four lawsuits in Maryland that seek to force oil companies to pay for MTBE well contamination in Carroll and Harford counties.

"That was tremendous," Gene Ratych, chairman of the Greater Fallston Association's MTBE task force, said of the congressional action. "It's a victory for the citizens. It's a victory for water companies across the country."

Ratych said that if the oil companies were freed from the responsibility of cleaning up sites contaminated by MTBE, the cost likely would have been passed to taxpayers.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has said that the Exxon station in Upper Crossroads was at least partly responsible for gas-additive leaks.

MTBE came into wide use about 15 years ago as an additive to make gasoline burn cleaner and generate less pollution.

Prem Nair, a spokeswoman for ExxonMobil, said the company is evaluating its options concerning the use of MTBE.

She said that "due to improved vehicle and fuel technology, oxygenates such as MTBE are no longer needed to meet environmental goals."

Nair said, "Reformulated gasoline can be made without oxygenates while meeting required emissions reductions."

Edward Murphy, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, said Congress' refusal to enact MTBE liability protection was not fair because lawmakers had required the oil companies to use oxygenates such as MTBE in gasoline when they enacted clean-air legislation in 1990.

He said most oil companies are trying to phase it out of their gasoline.

Valerie Twanmoh, a Bel Air lawyer who lives about a half-mile from the station, said she and her neighbors "were very relieved by the process taken by Congress. It sets the legal bases for holding the oil companies liable."

"Now we can [move forward] with a full-court pressure press on our lawsuits," Ratych said. "That's very, very important."

In July last year, Baltimore attorney and Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos filed a class action lawsuit related to the MTBE contamination in Harford.

The suit seeks millions of dollars, the closure of the station, and to have ExxonMobil pay to connect residents to a new water source and pay for the cleanup.

A second suit, filed around the same time, seeks medical monitoring and unspecified damages from ExxonMobil, which owns the station in Upper Crossroads.

Ratych said about 200 families are involved in the suits.

In Carroll County Circuit Court, at least three property owners have filed two civil lawsuits this year, alleging contamination of their wells by MTBE and other potentially hazardous chemicals migrating from gasoline stations in Finksburg and in Gamber.

In Finksburg, MTBE showed up in 2003 in water at the Shell Jiffy Mart No. 1 at Route 140 and Suffolk Road.

The store's owner has installed carbon-filtration systems in several homes and businesses while undertaking a cleanup operation.

In Gamber, a would-be developer found contamination last year when he drilled test wells on 23 open acres at 2139 Sykesville Road, and sued current and previous owners and operators of what is now George's Gas & Deli at 602 Deer Park Road.

Sun staff writer Sheridan Lyons contributed to this article.

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