ACWA denounces Energy Bill 'Safe Harbor' for oil companies

California association decried a U.S. House of Representatives' planned vote Wednesday on 'safe harbor' immunity provisions in the House Energy Bill. The language would release oil companies from responsibility for groundwater contamination by the gasoline additive MTBE. Only Calif. Rep. Capps' amendment stands between immunity for groundwater polluters...

WASHINGTON, DC, April 19, 2005 (BUSINESS WIRE) -- The Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) today is denouncing the House of Representatives' planned vote Wednesday on 'safe harbor' immunity provisions in the House energy bill. The language would release oil companies from responsibility for groundwater contamination by the gasoline additive MTBE.

The safe harbor provision has been consistently opposed by ACWA and a national coalition of municipalities, counties, and public and private drinking water providers since the 1990's. Wednesday's floor debate could include an ACWA-supported amendment to strike the provision by U.S. Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara, Calif.).

The provision, backed by embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, is worth billions of dollars to makers of the MTBE additive, such as ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corp. It died last year when the Senate balked at passing a House-approved bill that gave these and other companies a free pass for polluting water supplies.

"It is unfortunate that Congress was forced to choose today between the powerful oil lobby and the protection of a vital public resource," said ACWA Executive Director Steve Hall. "Despite years of evidence that gasoline manufacturers knew of the contamination problem posed by MTBE, these companies chose to continue using the additive. Now, MTBE is still in widespread use, water supplies have been tainted nationwide, and these companies are looking to Congress to bail them out -- truly a new low."

"It's hard to imagine a worse precedent than the one set by this part of the energy bill," Hall said. "In essence, the House is saying to the oil industry, 'Don't worry about the water supplies that have been contaminated by your product -- local water ratepayers will pay for the cleanup.'"

California and 18 other states have fully or partially removed MTBE from their gasoline supplies, but the House energy bill's language would provide a nationwide retroactive release of liability, to be backdated to 2003. This could affect many industry-funded groundwater cleanups already underway, even in states that have recently gotten rid of the additive. The cost for the cleanup of thousands of contaminated wells is expected to be in excess of $29 billion.

After Wednesday's vote on the House floor, the bill will await consideration in the U.S. Senate, where the language has been stopped before. "We're hopeful that we can get a better result from the Senate this year," said Hall.

ACWA (www.acwa.org) is a statewide non-profit organization whose 447 public agency members are collectively responsible for 90 percent of the water delivered in California.

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