Justice served?

October 13, 2011

All too often, settlements and court victories in cases where millions in monetary damages are awarded appear as outrageous examples of what's wrong with the judicial system.

A few high profile cases, like the infamous hot coffee injury case which was raised a few papers ago by a letter writer whose opinions were published on this page, tend to capture public attention and serve as justification for railing against the system.

Fair enough. It's a free country, and railing against the system is what having a free country is all about.

Now and again, though, justice is served, even in the arena of civil litigation, and Aberdeen's recent securing of a $2.5 million settlement in a groundwater contamination case is an example. It's a hefty amount of money for a city the size of Aberdeen, making up a double digit percentage of the city's annual budget.

But it isn't free money. Aberdeen signed on to a class action suit relating to a spill of the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, which is more well known by its abbreviation MTBE. Added to gasoline as an oxygenating agent to reduce certain kinds of pollutants from cars, it fulfilled a function that also could have been taken care of by alcohol. Indeed, MTBE has been replaced as a gasoline additive, mostly by alcohol, which is substantially less toxic. MTBE itself is suspected of causing a number of ailments, including cancer.

Unfortunately, MTBE wasn't replaced until after it had been found to have contaminated underground aquifers across the country, including in Aberdeen and in the Fallston area community of Upper Crossroads.

Dealing with such contamination is a multimillion dollar problem. Aberdeen has been fortunate insofar as the municipal drinking water supply long provided thanks to a wellfield, could relatively easily be supplemented by the county's water system. The $2.5 million settlement the city is receiving may cover the cost of dealing with the contamination, and if it isn't spot on, it's probably is in the ballpark.

This, no doubt, isn't the last of the MTBE settlements that will be reached in the coming years, and the total is likely to exceed the millions mark. But the damage done is substantial, and it is a matter of justice that those who cause damage be held responsible.

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