Oil companies, residents feel impact of federal MTBE provision

Energy bill doesn't shield firms from suits in Carroll

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

The Exxon gas station suspected in one of the largest instances of well contamination ever recorded in Maryland is gone, but the legal battle over the impact of a toxic gasoline additive 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 Harford County last week, just days after Congress passed an energy bill that leaves oil companies to defend themselves against lawsuits stemming from the kind of MTBE leaks that contaminated nearly 200 wells in the Fallston area.

In a compromise that cleared the way for passage of the country's first energy bill in a decade, congressional leaders agreed to remove a provision that would have protected producers of MTBE - methyl tertiary butyl ether, a potential 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.

Gene Ratych, chairman of the Greater Fallston Association's MTBE task force, said that now that Congress has acted, his group could go ahead with its lawsuit.

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.

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, which is nearby.

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 for the cleanup.

A second suit, filed about the same time, seeks medical monitoring and unspecified damages from ExxonMobil, which owns the station. Ratych said about 200 families are involved in the suits.

Ratych said that if the oil companies had been absolved of responsibility for cleaning up MTBE in ground water, the cost likely would have been passed on to taxpayers.

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

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.

Sun staff writer Sheridan Lyons contributed to this article.

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