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Can You Taste the MTBE?

There are chemicals in the water in East Hampton, Monroe and all over the state. Now the towns are suing the petroleum industry. Blumenthal may join them.

by Alexander Dworkowitz – April 1, 2004

East Hampton is a good place to visit if you’re a bottled-water salesman. Once a home to dye and bell manufacturers, the town has had problems with water pollution for years. Most businesses and homes have their own wells, which routinely are found to have trace amounts of chemicals and bacteria in them.

But recently, a new compound has appeared in the wells along East High Street. The compound is MTBE, a gasoline additive that has been linked to cancer in tests on laboratory animals. In particular, MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) was found in relatively high concentrations in the well supplying the East Hampton Mall. The mall’s landlord constructed a new well, which so far has been free of the additive. But the situation has left the mall’s tenants still questioning what exactly is in their water.

“The little guys rarely know,” said Tracy Danziger, office manager for a dentist in the mall.

Now, the businesses and residents of East Hampton want more than answers; they want solutions. The town manager has decided East Hampton needs money to remediate its MTBE problem and build a central water supply. So the town has joined a class-action lawsuit against the oil industry, seeking to recover its costs.

The town has teamed up with East Hampton’s American Distilling and Manufacturing Company, Our Lady of the Rosary in Monroe, the Columbia Board of Education and United Water Connecticut in New Milford (the town of Canton and a Harwinton school were originally part of the case, but dropped out after subsequent tests revealed no MTBE).

But the five entities may be the tip of the iceberg. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is considering filing suit on behalf of the state against the oil industry. His office recently issued a Request for Proposals, seeking to enlist a private law firm to try the case on behalf of the state.

“We have a sense that MTBE contamination in Connecticut is widespread and prevalent,” Blumenthal said. “Many bodies of water, including drinking supplies, have been contaminated. The state has paid substantially and will continue to pay to remedy this pollution.”

Although researchers have linked MTBE to cancer in lab tests, it is not clear whether drinking MTBE-laden water is a danger. So far, the levels of MTBE found in Connecticut’s water supply do not come close to approaching the levels that caused animals harm in the lab. But there is enough MTBE in parts of Connecticut to be tasted in the water, according to Neal Moskow, an attorney representing the plaintiffs.

“Essentially [MTBE] makes the water taste and smell like turpentine,” said Moskow, who is trying the case in conjunction with lawyers from Texas and New York.

The particular problem with MTBE is that it is “hydrophilic” — it is attracted to water and easily makes its way into the water supply.

In 1979, the oil industry introduced MTBE to gasoline in order to increase the octane and meet tougher air pollution standards. At the beginning of the year, a ban on MTBE in Connecticut took effect, and that ban is blamed for contributing to the increase in gas prices.

Moskow maintains that oil industry scientists knew about MTBE’s bad taste and its propensity toward water. They also knew that gasoline spills were common and MTBE would inevitably get into the drinking water supply, but did nothing, according to the suit.

Members of the oil industry, of course, have a different take. Edward Murphy, group director for downstream operations for the American Petroleum Institute, noted the industry only began using MTBE at the government’s request. He added that the federal government in fact approved MTBE.

“The EPA is the one that approved it, Congress is the one that required it,” he said.

Moskow said the industry could have used ethanol instead of MTBE, but decided against it because ethanol is more expensive.

Last fall, the oil industry pushed Congress to ban any MTBE-related lawsuits against the industry, and the measure was introduced as part of the nation’s energy bill. The bill, however, never passed, and attorneys are taking advantage. In October, New Hampshire’s attorney general filed suit against the industry. A group of utilities in California has already won a $28 million settlement with oil companies over MTBE.

How exactly did the MTBE get in East Hampton’s wells? No one knows for sure. Danzinger knows her dentist’s office has to filter its water. Theresa Calos, of the mall’s Diamond Pizza Restaurant, knows the town has to keep an eye on the water she uses to cook macaroni. For Moskow, that evidence of MTBE, and the concern in East Hampton and other towns, is reason enough for a suit, which names all of the country’s major oil companies.

“We don’t know if it came from the Texaco, the Mobil, the Shell or someplace else,” he said. “The only fair way to address that is you all share some of the responsibility, you all derive a significant amount of profit from Connecticut, and you should be responsible for cleaning up your mess.”