Shell Oil Company and Sunoco Inc. have agreed to pay the state $35 million to settle claims they supplied New Hampshire with gasoline containing methyl tertiary butyl ether, commonly known as MtBE.
The state sued those companies and five others in 2003 for selling MtBE gasoline here, knowing it would contaminate groundwater supplies.
The trial in the case is scheduled to start Jan. 7. Five companies remain as defendants: Exxon/Mobil Corporation, Irving Oil Co., Citgo Petroleum, ConocoPhillips Co. and Vitol S.A.
The state alleges the gasoline manufacturers and refineries knew the MtBE gas was defective, “created a public nuisance, and violated state environmental and consumer protection laws,” according to the lawsuit filed in October 2003.
The state wants the court to hold the oil companies responsible for investigative and cleanup costs, as well as awarding monetary penalties.
MtBE dissolves easily in water, is difficult to fin and remove. Adverse health effects associated with the chemical include an increased risk of cancer.
“MtBE has become a significant and costly threat, especially to the underground aquifers that most of us rely upon for drinking water,” then-Attorney General Peter Heed said in 2003. “These companies knew of the dangers that adding MtBE to gasoline posed to water resources. They, and not the state or its citizens, should pay the bill to fully address this unprecedented environmental problem.”
More than 23 percent of the public water supplies in Rockingham County tested positive for MtBE in 2002. Another study, conducted that same year, used lower detection limits and found 41 percent of water systems tested in the county had some level of MtBE.
The chemical started being added to gasoline more than 30 years ago, but gas companies significantly increased the levels in the 1990s “as an inexpensive way to comply with the fuel oxygenate mandate under the Clean Air Act,” according to the state. The number of New Hampshire public water supplies with detectable amounts of MtBE rose significantly from 1994 to 2002, from about 25 in 1994 to approximately 175 in 2002.
In January 2008, a new study came out, based on water samples taken by the U.S. Geological Survey. That study included public and private wells. The results were even more damning. It showed one of every two private wells tested in Rockingham County had some level of MtBE contamination.
After that study was published, then-Attorney General Kelly Ayotte promised to fight on. She is now one of the state’s two U.S. senators.
“This study illustrates the importance of pressing the state’s claims against those companies that added MtBE to our fuel supplies,” Ayotte said in 2008. “The damage resulting from their decision to use these defective products — MtBE and gasoline containing MtBE — persists and may well continue indefinitely. I intend to seek full recovery for the citizens of this state and full restoration of our precious water resources.”
And now it’s in the hands of Attorney General Michael Delaney.
“We must ensure that our public waters remain clean and safe for the benefit of all our citizens,” Delaney said yesterday in announcing the settlement with Shell and Sunoco. “My office will continue to hold oil companies responsible for their role in causing groundwater contamination in this state.”