Rhode Island Sues Big Oil Over MTBE

Lawsuit names more than 30 fuel manufacturers to recover cleanup costs

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The state of Rhode Island has filed a lawsuit against 34 gasoline manufacturers to recover cleanup costs over the state-banned fuel additive MTBE.

Refiners added methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) to gasoline during the 1990s and early 2000s to not only boost octane but also meet oxygenate requirements at the time under the Clean Air Act. But it soon fell out of favor because of how easily it dissolved into and polluted groundwater—and ultimately, drinking water—after leaking from faulty underground storage tanks and fueling systems.

Rhode Island banned MTBE in 2007, joining dozens of other states. However, the additive continues to contaminate its groundwater. In its lawsuit, the state points to research that even low concentrations of MTBE can pose major issues, not only because it is a probable human carcinogen but also because it can give a strong taste and smell to water. It is also costly to remove.

The lawsuit names all of the major oil companies who supplied MTBE-containing gasoline to the Northeast and Rhode Island—operators including Alon, BP, Chevron, CITGO, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Shell, Sunoco and Valero. It seeks to make the oil companies reimburse Rhode Island for “past, present and future cleanup costs that will improve and protect the water quality for all Rhode Islanders.”

“The state has incurred significant costs to remove MTBE from sites where it has leaked into soils and groundwater, costs that should not be borne by the state or by taxpayers but by the companies who knew that their product would cause this contamination,” said Peter Kilmartin, Rhode Island’s attorney general, in a statement announcing the lawsuit.

While the oil companies named in the suit might no longer be blending MTBE into gasoline, they also have not offered to remove it from Rhode Island’s water supplies, nor reimburse the state for money it has already spent on cleanup, the state complains.

Rhode Island is tapping the assistance of several law firms experienced in MTBE lawsuits in other communities and states, including New Hampshire. This past May, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a record $236 million judgment the state of New Hampshire won against ExxonMobil from a 2003 lawsuit over MTBE contamination. 

To see the Rhode Island lawsuit and a complete listing of defendants, click here.

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