Opposition challenges MTBE liability waiver

Organisations representing mayors, local elected leaders and drinking water providers challenged the latest offer by US House energy bill conferees to provide product liability immunity...

Organisations representing mayors, local elected leaders and drinking water providers challenged the latest offer by US House energy bill conferees to provide product liability immunity to producers of gasoline with methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).

Three major groups — the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA), American Water Works Association (AWWA) and the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) - sent a letter on 17 October to 45 Senators that noted "the House's MTBE safe harbour provisions proposed in conference have gone from bad to worse."

Thousands of sources of water have been contaminated across the USA, and spreading MTBE contamination will cause more and more wells to be shut down, according to the letter from the organisations. MTBE clean up costs range from a few million dollars to more than US$ 200 million per utility.

"Remarkably, MTBE producers have convinced House leaders to change the effective date of the provisions from the date of enactment to a retroactive date of 1 October 2003," said Diane VanDe Hei, AMWA executive director. "This will block dozens of legitimate suits filed in recent weeks, forcing clean-up costs onto consumers."

In addition, the proposed revision narrows the scope of negligence only to spills, effectively eliminating suits against gasoline producers under other negligence grounds. The liability grounds allowed in the "safe harbour" provision would not apply to the producers of gasoline containing MTBE and would shift the liability burden to gas station owners and distributors who were not responsible for making MTBE or adding it to gasoline.

MTBE producers claim that the federal government mandated the use of MTBE. ACWA Executive Director Steve Hall disagrees. "MTBE was never mandated, and a court has found that the MTBE producers knew of its environmental dangers long before they started marketing it widely.

"The MTBE provision is bad public policy and will ultimately harm the American people," said Jack Hoffbuhr, AWWA executive director. "It is impossible to fully measure the harm this arbitrary "safe harbour" shield will cause local governments already struggling under tight budgets and limited resources."

More in Drinking Water