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State of Rhode Island Files Suit Against Oil Companies to Recover Costs of Protecting Water Quality and Drinking Water

Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin and Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) Director Janet Coit today announced that the State has filed a lawsuit against gasoline manufacturers to recover expenses associated with the cleanup of the gasoline additive Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether ("MTBE"). The lawsuit, filed in United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island, addresses the ongoing environmental risk and long-term groundwater contamination arising from the oil companies' use of MTBE and the resulting expensive cleanup.

The lawsuit alleges that for many years, the defendants added MTBE to gasoline to increase its oxygen content. MTBE leaked from underground storage tanks and contaminated groundwater and soils throughout the United States including Rhode Island. Research shows that MTBE's presence in drinking water, even at extremely low levels, poses serious problems for the State because MTBE can give water a strong turpentine-like taste and odor, its removal is costly, and it is considered a probable human carcinogen. The State of Rhode Island banned the use of MTBE in 2007, but MTBE continues to contaminate the State's groundwater.

"The State has incurred significant costs to remove MTBE from sites where it has leaked into soils and groundwater, costs that should not be borne by the State or by taxpayers but by the companies who knew that their product would cause this contamination," said Attorney General Peter Kilmartin.

Director Coit added, "MTBE has caused significant groundwater contamination throughout Rhode Island. And although it is no longer in use, MTBE's effects on our environment persist threatening our families, wildlife, and precious natural resources. It is time the companies responsible for adding this compound to gasoline are held accountable for the costs of clean up."

Several other states in the Northeast and elsewhere have pursued similar legal actions against the oil industry to recover funds spent for removal of MTBE. Previously, hundreds of cities, towns and water districts across the United States engaged in similar litigation to collect the costs of removing MTBE from their soils and water supplies. In those cases, documents obtained from the oil industry revealed that the companies knew that MTBE would leak from underground storage tanks and contaminate groundwater. Although many states have now banned the sale of gasoline containing MTBE, and the oil companies have stopped blending it into gasoline, these companies have not volunteered to remove the chemical from Rhode Island's water supplies nor have they reimbursed Rhode Island for the monies it has spent to do so.

The State has named as defendants in the case all of the major oil companies who supplied MTBE-containing gasoline to the Northeast and Rhode Island, including ExxonMobil, British Petroleum, Chevron, Citgo, ConocoPhillips, Shell, Sunoco, Total, and Valero, among others. (A full list of the 34 defendants is attached)

While the Attorney General retains control over the lawsuit, the State is also being assisted by Baron & Budd, P.C. and Weitz & Luxenberg, P.C., law firms that are highly experienced with environmental and MTBE litigation. These firms have represented hundreds of communities nationwide whose water supplies were affected by MTBE and other chemical contaminants and currently represent the State of Vermont in its MTBE litigation. They are joined by Rodman, Rodman & Sandman, P.C., who has likewise represented dozens of cities, towns, and water districts in MTBE and other chemical contamination litigation in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and the Pawa Law Group, P.C. which successfully represented the State of New Hampshire in its case against oil company defendants for contamination of that state's waters with MTBE and also represents the state of Vermont in its MTBE litigation.

These firms subscribe to Attorney General Kilmartin's and Director Coit's philosophy that the State and its residents should not be forced to pay clean-up costs for a problem that the oil companies created. The State seeks to require the oil companies to reimburse the State for past, present and future clean-up costs that will improve and protect the water quality for all Rhode Islanders.

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