Water utilities to Congress: Don't let water polluters off the hook

Communities across America would be forced to pay in excess of $29 billion in MTBE water contamination cleanup costs if Congress approves legislation that would offer liability immunity to the petroleum and MTBE industry.

Communities across America would be forced to pay in excess of $29 billion in MTBE water contamination cleanup costs if Congress approves legislation that would offer liability immunity to the petroleum and MTBE industry.

Four of the nation's largest water utility associations recently sent a letter urging the U.S. Senate to oppose the liability immunity legislation (H.R. 6 and S.791) that is expected to reach the Senate floor the week of June 1, following Congress' Memorial Day recess.

The associations also asked Congress to oppose clauses in the same legislation granting liability immunity to the producers of ethanol. The associations believe that more scientific research needs to be completed to determine the environmental impacts of ethanol in water supplies.

The letter to the U.S. Senate (attached) was signed by the American Water Works Association, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, the National Association of Water Companies and the Association of California Water Agencies.

Ironically, MTBE was first used as an inexpensive fuel additive to help clean the air. But hundreds of cities throughout America soon found the chemical contaminating their water supply. The EPA has identified MTBE as a possible human carcinogen that renders water undrinkable due to its foul taste and odor of paint thinner. MTBE is now banned in 17 states.

Moreover, the MTBE industry knew of the additive's environmental dangers long before it was put in use to meet the oxygenate requirement. While MTBE was the most inexpensive solution at the time of the oxygenate requirement, documents uncovered in a lawsuit by the South Tahoe Public Utility District against eight oil companies demonstrate the MTBE industry's knowledge since the early 1980s that the product spread rapidly in groundwater and was difficult to clean up.

MTBE enters groundwater primarily from leaking underground storage tanks at gas stations and because MTBE is extremely soluble, it moves much farther and faster in water than the other ingredients in gasoline, making it difficult to clean up. Gasoline leaking from underground storage tanks has been responsible for contaminating drinking water wells across the country with MTBE. Recent studies estimate that it would cost $29 billion to clean up more than 500 public drinking-water wells and 45,000 private wells throughout the nation that are contaminated with MTBE.

Several lawsuits brought against the producers of MTBE by local communities, whose water supplies were contaminated have been successful, but without legal protection, water utilities fear that producers will have little incentive to clean up contaminated water supplies. The contamination also leaves local communities' with the costs for acquisition of new sources of water, such as new pipelines and wells.

Congress is proposing to let the petroleum industry and the MTBE producers off the hook, leaving communities to pay for the clean up. Recent studies estimate that it would cost $29 billion to clean more than 500 public drinking-water wells and 45,000 private wells throughout the nation that are contaminated with MTBE.

"The ultimate victims of product liability immunity will be the American people, who will lose their aquifers to contamination and lose their money to cleanups and acquisition of new sources of water," the water associations stated in their letter to the Senate.

"Contrary to claims by oil companies and ethanol producers, product defect liability immunity is not narrowly tailored. In a major way, these provisions shift liability for clean up away from producers to water consumers. They also shift liability to retailers and distributors, who are in no way responsible for the decision to produce a product that has as much capacity for environmental harm as MTBE and who are likely to lack the resources necessary to remedy the problems created by MTBE in the first place."

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