Lawmakers argue oil company protections |

Lawmakers argue oil company protections

A California jury told oil companies to pay $69 million to fix the damage MTBE caused to groundwater at South Shore. But will they have to pay for cleanup anywhere else?

The gasoline additive, which is banned at the Lake Tahoe Basin, has become a topic of debate as part of an energy bill working its way through Congress. Several lawmakers have argued that oil companies should not be held responsible to pay cleanup costs associated with the product.

The bill proposes a national ban on the additive while creating incentives to increase the production of ethanol, a corn-based fuel additive that also is water soluble.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., House Energy Conference chairman, argued that if a nationwide ban of the additive is passed, MTBE makers should be given a liability waiver against lawsuits arising from MTBE contamination of water supplies.

“Why should the taxpayers pay for this (cleanup)?” asked Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. “The House is doing the oil companies’ bidding.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has said he will not support an energy bill that includes MTBE liability relief, according to a report by the Environmental & Energy Daily on Tuesday.

In August, after years of legal battle, the South Tahoe Public Utility District was awarded $69 million from oil companies to fix damage done to its water system. The money, whittled down to $35 million after covering attorney fees and district work already done to clean up MTBE at the South Shore, was awarded after a jury determined the additive is a defective product.

The district shut down 12 of its 34 water wells in 1998 because trace amounts of the additive were detected in eight of its wells.

About $1.5 million of the awarded money has already been spent on the installation of an innovative water treatment system at a well on Arrowhead Avenue in Meyers.

“Of course we’ve already settled our lawsuits,” said Dennis Cocking, district spokesman. “But it’s the philosophy we oppose that essentially gives them a license to pollute. There’s no way small community water agencies can bear the cost. We know far too well how expensive it is.”

The district says there is no way to determine how long it will take to treat its water. A site at Rockaway, N.J., has been treating MTBE-laced water for 20 years and the chemical is still present, Cocking said.

“Time will tell,” Cocking said. “Our engineers and consultants estimated costs to treat at wellheads for 40 years.”

Methyl tertiary butyl ether was introduced to gasoline in the 1990s to reduce emissions. Water experts discovered the chemical, a suspected carcinogen, moved through groundwater fast, leaving it smelling like turpentine and unsafe to drink.

In April 2000, the El Dorado County portion of Lake Tahoe Basin became the first area in the country to ban MTBE.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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