New Hampshire Sues Major Oil Companies over MTBE Pollution
October 6, 2003
Attorney General Peter W. Heed announced today that New Hampshire has filed a
lawsuit in state court against major oil companies that added the chemical “methyl tertiary
butyl ether” (“MTBE”) to gasoline, causing widespread contamination of the state’s waters
with a chemical that is costly to find and remove.
Governor Craig Benson and Department of Environmental Services (“DES”)
Commissioner Michael Nolin simultaneously announced their full support of the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, filed in Merrimack County Superior Court, claims that twenty-two major
oil companies, including ExxonMobil Corporation and Lyondell Chemical Company, have
added increasing amounts of MTBE to New Hampshire’s gasoline even though they knew
years ago that it would contaminate water supplies. The state alleges that the manufacturers
and refiners produced a defective product, created a public nuisance and violated state
environmental and consumer protection laws. The state asks the court to hold the companies
responsible for all costs associated with addressing the problem, including investigative and
cleanup costs, and to assess monetary penalties.
Attorney General Heed said: “In New Hampshire, clean water is a precious resource
that we depend upon for drinking, recreation and every aspect of our health and economic
well being. MTBE has become a significant and costly threat, especially to the underground
aquifers that most of us rely upon for drinking water. 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.”
MTBE has been associated with adverse health consequences and can render water
unpalatable, even at very low levels. Because MTBE dissolves easily in water, it travels
faster and farther than other gasoline constituents and is more difficult to find and remove,
making cleanup more expensive.
Although the state has been at the forefront of adopting strict gasoline storage
regulations, MTBE is still escaping into the environment. Contamination often is not
traceable to a particular source or spill and may not even be associated with underground
leaks at gas stations. To protect public health, the state has established a health-based
standard of 13 parts per billion (ppb) for MTBE, which triggers regulatory cleanup response.
State funding mechanisms have had to cover many of those cleanup expenses, but the funds
are not available for cleanup if the health-based standard is not exceeded.
Approximately 60% of the state’s population relies on groundwater wells for drinking
water. The state’s lawsuit cites several statistics on contamination of those supplies. For
example, as of 2002, MTBE was detected in more than 15% of the public water supplies
tested statewide. More than 33% of those tested in Strafford County and more than 23% of
those tested in Rockingham County contained some level of MTBE contamination. In
addition, the state’s preliminary analysis of more recent data generated by a joint DES/U.S.
Geological Survey study of Rockingham County’s public water systems, which used lower
detection limits, shows that 41% of those tested contain some level of MTBE. The state also
estimates, based on studies from other states, that about 40,000 private wells in New
Hampshire contain some level of MTBE.
DES Commissioner Nolin said: “We are already addressing water systems that have
MTBE levels exceeding the health-based standard of 13 ppb, but MTBE is pervasive and
there is widespread impact that cannot necessarily be addressed under state regulations. This
lawsuit complements our existing efforts with a more proactive approach to identifying and
restoring all contaminated and threatened waters with funding from those who are
MTBE was first used in gasoline in the late 1970s in small amounts as an octane
enhancer, but in the 1990s, major oil companies chose to significantly increase MTBE levels
in gasoline as an inexpensive way to comply with the fuel oxygenate mandate under the
Clean Air Act. They chose MTBE rather than employ alternatives that they knew did not
pose the same threat to water supplies. New Hampshire has chosen to remove itself from the
oxygenated fuels program in the absence of Congressional action on MTBE, but is still
awaiting federal approval.