Santa Monica, CA Sues Big Oil for MTBE Damage to Water

By Timna Tanners
SANTA MONICA, Calif. (Reuters) - The California beach city of Santa Monica said Tuesday it is suing 18 oil companies for damages that could exceed $200 million, charging the firms polluted city drinking water wells with a possibly cancer-causing gasoline additive.

The companies being sued include Royal Dutch/Shell Oil Co. , Texaco Inc., Chevron Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp., Tosco Corp., Ultramar Diamond Shamrock and Unocal Corp..
Santa Monica city officials are asking oil companies to pay clean-up and litigation costs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated removing gasoline additive MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, could cost $200 million.

MTBE, a key component of California's clean-burning gasoline blend, fell out of favor recently when a study found it contaminated water supplies and could cause cancer. California Gov. Gray Davis ordered it banned as of 2002.

Santa Monica Mayor Ken Genser said that for decades the city had provided drinking water from its own wells.

"Now thanks to the oil industry, the city no longer can use most of its drinking water," he said in a statement. "The time has come for the oil industry to pay for the clean-up of its pollution and for the city to regain use of its most precious natural resource--drinking water."
Tosco and the joint venture between Shell and Texaco declined to comment, saying they had not yet read the lawsuit. Chevron spokesman Rod Spackman said that his company had worked with Santa Monica officials and were still researching clean-up alternatives and processes.

"Chevron believes we can work with the city," he said. "We're dealing with difficult problems and don't necessarily view this as our responsibility but are willing to be part of the solution."

The city, which borders Los Angeles, said oil companies walked away from negotiating a clean-up plan earlier this year, after MTBE was found to have seeped into city drinking wells.

City officials said the oil companies' attempts to rectify the contamination have been insufficient. "Poisoning someone's cow and then handing them only a glass of milk adds insult to injury," City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said.

The lawsuit says the defendants, "knew or reasonably should have known that (MTBE) would reach groundwater, pollute public water supplies, render the City's drinking water unusable and unsafe and threaten public health."

California gasoline refiners are required to use an oxygenate to produce the state-mandated CARB blend, the world's cleanest gasoline. MTBE was the oxygenate the industry adopted and has used since the 1970s.

The lawsuit was filed in San Francisco County Superior Court.

Water systems evaluating research for getting gas additive out of water

Associated Press Writer

CINCINNATI (AP) -- Federal researchers are trying to help water works utilities nationwide decide how to filter the gasoline additive MTBE out of drinking water supplies and how much to spend.

Some water utilities, including the city of Cincinnati's, have not detected a presence of methyl tertiary butyl ether in the drinking water they distribute to customers. But for those whose water sources have been contaminated, any method of filtration or chemical treatment to rid water of MTBE could be a multimillion-dollar commitment, a federal environmental engineer said Monday.

The costs would vary depending on the severity of the problem in a given area, said Tom Speth, an engineer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Cincinnati water pollution research laboratory. Carbon filters, water-to-air transfer and bubbling ozone through water are potential methods of removing the foul-smelling MTBE, Speth said.

The EPA's Cincinnati lab is helping the water works industry research which treatment method would be most useful and affordable.

MTBE, a widely used gas additive that makes cars burn fuel cleaner and thus reduces air pollution, is highly soluble in water. It is suspected of causing cancer in animals.

Its health impact on humans is not yet known, but lawsuits have resulted when MTBE has tainted underground water in some areas. Wells were closed and water trucked in. Water agencies have been getting calls from concerned people since a Jan. 16 report by CBS' ``60 Minutes'' about MTBE.

``It's not unsolveable,'' said Jim Manwaring, executive director of the American Water Works Association in Denver. ``We're looking at ways to try and eliminate it or minimize it.''

One method of removing MTBE is filtering drinking water through granular carbon, which is how Cincinnati's city water system purifies the drinking water it pulls from the Ohio River. But for water systems without such a system, installation costs are steep.

Homeowners can buy their own carbon-filtering systems, but the carbon's effectiveness eventually wanes.

Another method under study is biofiltration, in which water is treated with bacteria that absorb MTBE. But one drawback is that the system's user must dispose of the biofiltration sludge, Manwaring said.

There also is a process known as ``air-stripping,'' in which a stream of air is moved past the water to transfer the MTBE from the water into the air. But local air-quality regulators might require a water system to then treat the MTBE-tainted air, adding to the cost, Speth said.

Still another method, called advanced oxidation, involves treating water with bubbling ozone and an ultraviolet light.