The state of New Hampshire has begun its case against two major oil companies over groundwater contamination caused by gasoline additives. Pre-trial conferences are currently in progress and the long-awaited jury trial will begin on January 21. The trial is expected to last four months.
Lawyers for the state say that ExxonMobil and Citgo should pay over $700 million in damages to monitor and clean up groundwater contaminated by MTBE, the gas additive known as methyl tertiary butyl ether. The substance is now banned in New Hampshire.
The lawsuit was first brought in 2003, but is only now reaching trial. It is the only MTBE groundwater contamination case brought by a state to actually reach trial in this country. Most MTBE cases have been brought by municipalities, water districts, or individual well owners; all but one case settled or was dismissed.
MTBE was added to gasoline beginning in the 1970s; it was meant to increase octane and reduce smog-causing emissions. While it did succeed in cutting back on air pollution, researchers in the late 1990s discovered the additive contaminated drinking water when gasoline spilled or leaked into surface or groundwater. New Hampshire banned its use in 2007.
The state is demanding a substantial payment for MTBE cleanup because of the make-up of the state’s water resources. About 60 percent of New Hampshire's population gets its drinking water from wells, meaning the cost to test and treat all potentially contaminated water sources will be high.