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Queens Chronicle

City is victor in initial MTBE case ruling

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Posted: Thursday, August 13, 2009 12:00 am

New York City’s four-part case against Exxon Mobil for MTBE contamination of groundwater in Jamaica moved past the first phase Wednesday, when a jury ruled in favor of the city after it proved it will build a proposed water treatment plant and use the wells it is ordering the oil giant to pay to clean out.

The second phase, which began Wednesday, will examine whether the additive will be present near the wells in 15 or 20 years and would impact the water supply when the wells are turned on. The Jamaica water well system would supply Queens with water in the event of a shortage from upstate sources.

In the case before Judge Shira Scheindlin of United States District Court in Manhattan, the city is suing for the costs of removing MTBE from the city’s groundwater water. The suit seeks $250 million.

Jury selection for the trial was Aug. 3, and the jury had been in deliberation since Monday. City attorneys, joined by the San Francisco law firm of Sher Leff LLP, which specializes in litigation involving water contamination, argue that Exxon knew MTBE could pollute the groundwater beneath its storage stations when it began using it in the late 1970s. They also contend the corporation and other oil companies conspired to keep the dangers of the chemical a secret.

While it was supposed to replace lead, improve efficiency and reduce tailpipe emissions, MTBE proved highly soluble in water and became the source of hundreds of recent lawsuits against oil companies. New York State banned MTBE in 2004.

“This is simply the initial phase of the trial, one which is unrelated to water quality,” Kevin Allexon, an Exxon spokesman, wrote in an e-mail. “These wells have gone unused for more than 12 years and even the city’s principal expert does not contend that any ExxonMobil stations contributed to the small amounts of MTBE found in the wells — something which we look forward to demonstrating as the trial continues.”

While several of the nation’s largest oil companies, such as Shell, BP, Chevron, Citgo, Hess and Sunoco settled claims against them for $15 million, Exxon has remained steadfast in admitting no liability.

To prove oil distributors’ collective awareness of the product’s dangers, the city points to a former Exxon employee, who testified the company became aware of MTBE’s risks in 1980 after investigating a tank leak in Jacksonville, Md. An internal memorandum circulated at Exxon in 1984, according to the complaint, states:

“Based on the high mobility and taste/odor characteristics of MTBE, Exxon’s experience with contamination in Maryland and our knowledge of Shell’s experience with MTBE contamination incidents, the number of well contamination incidents is estimated to increase three times following the widespread introduction of MTBE into Exxon gasoline.”

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