Carroll Co. well contamination case testimony continues

MTBE, linked to cancer in lab animals, from gas station detected in wells

April 09, 2010|By Brent Jones | brent.jones@baltsun.com

A Carroll County jury is expected to continue hearing evidence next week in a class action lawsuit accusing a local oil company of polluting water wells with an additive linked to cancer in lab animals.

At least a half dozen Finksburg residents are suing Tevis Oil Inc. after methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, detected in gasoline at a company-owned Shell station at Suffolk Road and Route 140 was found to have affected 23 neighboring wells in 2002.

Witnesses for the plaintiffs were called this week in the case, which accuses Tevis of negligence, trespass and nuisance. The plaintiffs say Tevis knew for years that the hazardous chemicals were present at the Shell station and had escaped as liquid and vapor.

Defense attorneys, who started calling witnesses last week, are arguing that the company did everything in its power to fix the problem after it was discovered, and that its actual effect on the residents is unclear.

Testimony is expected to finish April 16, with closing arguments following and the case going to the jury by by April 19 , according to Howard Goldberg, lead attorney for Tevis Oil.

Plaintiff's attorney Bruce Hill, of the Peter G. Angelos law firm, said the lawsuit is for an unspecified amount.

MTBE is a suspected carcinogen whose effects in drinking water have not been determined. It was detected at or above the reportable level — 20 parts per billion — in water at the Tevis station site and in the neighboring wells, according to county health officials. The state's environmental department later identified the station as the source of pollution in the wells.

But county officials at the time praised Tevis' response, which included providing bottled water to residents and volunteering to pay for the installation of a filtration system at a day care center across Route 140 from the station. Tevis also installed carbon-filtration systems that have lowered the readings on concentrations of MTBE in water at the station, according to the county health department.

MTBE makes gasoline burn more cleanly, and it was required in 1990 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in states like Maryland that have high levels of ozone pollution in the summer. But studies on inhaling MTBE in large doses have shown that it causes cancer in laboratory rats.

Some people exposed to MTBE while pumping gasoline, driving their cars, or working in gas stations have reported having headaches, nausea, dizziness and mental confusion, according to the state Department of Environment, but the actual levels of exposure in those cases are unknown.

And while the additive did make the air cleaner, officials said, it has raised concerns about water pollution in recent years. This has resulted in stricter requirements by the Department of the Environment for gasoline stations across the north-central areas of the state, where underground water is drawn from fractured rock.

MTBE is no longer used in gasoline sold in Maryland. Refineries voluntarily stopped using it in 2006 after several states banned the additive and multiple lawsuits were filed.

Last year, a Baltimore County jury awarded more than $150 million to residents who sued Exxon Mobil over a 2006 leak at an Exxon station in Jacksonville. About 26,000 gallons of gasoline seeped into groundwater.

Two years ago, 12 major oil companies, including BP, Shell, Sunoco and Chevron, agreed to pay $423 million to settle MTBE-related lawsuits with 153 public water systems across the country.

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