MTBE case goes to jury

Finksburg residents are asking for at least $1.5 million

April 18, 2010|By Brent Jones, The Baltimore Sun

Residents of a block in Finksburg whose wells were infected with a hazardous gasoline additive are asking a Carroll County jury for a minimum $1.5 million civil judgment against the oil company found by the state to be responsible for the pollution.

A six-person jury will begin deliberations Monday in Carroll County Circuit Court to decide whether a Tevis Oil-owned gas station tainted wells in a neighboring community with methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE. If the jury finds Tevis at fault, it can award monetary damages.

Although the state Department of Environment in 2003 cited a Tevis-owned Shell station at Suffolk Road and Route 140 as the source of the additive, defense attorneys for the oil company said the MTBE came from a neighboring junkyard, where decomposing cars emitted the chemical.

"Tevis doesn't have any abandoned cars that have been in accidents with all the stuff that is stored in abandoned cars," said Howard Goldberg, lead attorney for Tevis, during his closing arguments.

MTBE is a suspected carcinogen whose effects in drinking water have not been determined. The chemical makes gasoline burn more cleanly, but after studies showed that the additive caused cancer in lab rats, refineries in Maryland stopped using it in 2006.

Twenty-three states have banned the chemical.

"We believe it causes cancer in humans," said Bruce Hill of the Peter G. Angelos firm and lead attorney for the plaintiffs. "They use lipstick on rats. And you use those tests and extrapolate them to human beings."

Unlike most lawsuits involving MTBE, there was no evidence showing that a leak or spill from the gas station into the groundwater caused the infestation in the wells, a point defense attorney hammered during closing arguments. But the plaintiffs say that the chemical escaped as liquid and vapor, and that Tevis knew and took steps in the ensuing years to rectify the problem.

The chemical was discovered at the Shell station by a customer seven years ago. Since then, four families living on or off Suffolk Road said they have had to use bottled water to cook, drink and bathe.

Clifford Keller, 86, told the jury during the three-week trial that he believes his property to be worth "next to nothing" since MTBE was discovered in his well. He said he has to drive to his daughter's home to take a bath and is fearful that exposure to contaminated water may lead to long-term health problems.

The five other plaintiffs also testified to having to use bottled water since 2003 and what they believe to be a decrease in their home value.

Hill said in his closing statements that the perception of a home being tainted destroys its value.

But several experts testified that the values of the homes did not decrease significantly after the findings, and that the worth of the infected houses is comparable to the surrounding homes.

"There was no difference in market value in control area homes as in the class [action] homes," Keller said.

This is the second high-profile case in two years to go before a jury involving MTBE. Last year, jurors in Baltimore County awarded more than $150 million to residents who sued Exxon Mobil over a leak at an Exxon station in Jacksonville. The company has filed an appeal.

"It doesn't belong in the groundwater in any of the plaintiffs' property," Hill said, "and there is no question that it doesn't belong in anybody's water. It's a man-made product."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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