Lawsuit enrages station owners
Hatred of the controversial fuel additive MTBE runs rampant at Lake Tahoe, and gas station owners are no exception to those feelings.
The fuel additive has brought loads of problems – cleanup costs, a big lawsuit and sleepless nights – into the lives of many South Shore service station owners.
“I’m looking out the window right now (at the work going on at my station). If I didn’t have MTBE, I wouldn’t have to do any of that stuff,” said Al Moss, owner of Al’s Chevron Way. “What do I think about MTBE? It’s an evil. It’s got to get out of the gas.”
There are 76 sites where gasoline or diesel fuel have leaked into the ground on the California side of the Lake Tahoe Basin, whether from spills, defective underground storage tanks or other problems. Thirty-four of those involve MTBE; about 21 of the MTBE cases are on South Shore.
From some of those sites, several drinking water wells belonging to the South Tahoe Public Utility District have been contaminated or are in danger of being contaminated. With MTBE-fighting costs at $1.5 million, one-third of its wells shut down and imminent water-usage restrictions looming this summer, the utility district – needless to say – blames MTBE for a lot of its problems.
Gas station owners are the same way.
For years, the only gasoline available to service station owners in California contained the oxygenate MTBE, methyl tertiary butyl ether. Now they are the ones bearing the burden of cleaning up contamination, station owners argue.
“(MTBE is) not a good thing, and I’m glad to see it coming out,” said Joseph Montoya of the Montoya Stateline Shell. “But we had to sell it. We didn’t have any choice.”
“The thing is the Air Resources Board decided to put MTBE in gas,” said Mark Witters, operator of Meyers Shell and Food Mart. “Nobody asked me for my vote.”
Moss said he has spent $90,000 to clean up an accident that happened in March. He plans to have to pay another $60,000 very soon and then hopefully start receiving financial help from the state. He’s still waiting to see if he is “determined eligible” for the funds.
“I have to wait for the state of California. If they don’t give it to me, we have no money,” Moss said.
Additionally, with the community-wide awareness of the MTBE problems, many residents are avoiding service stations serving MTBE gasoline, even though owners and operators continually say they have no control over what type of gas they receive.
Resulting from action by Gov. Gray Davis, MTBE-free gas – the first in years – now is coming to the California side of the basin. Tosco already is serving a handful of Lake Tahoe stations with MTBE-free gas. Chevron is committed to do it by July. Shell already is shipping some clean gas to the basin, and all its stations should be MTBE-free by June.
That’s not every station on the California side of South Shore, however, and damage has already been done.
Donna Barker, co-owner of the South Tahoe Shell Food Mart, said a frequent customer recently came in, asked if the station served MTBE-free gas, found out it didn’t and left.
Gary Michelson, owner of the Exxon station on Kingsbury Grade, said he, because his business is in Nevada, has been getting MTBE-free gas for two years.
“We’ve been advertising on the radio and in the paper,” he said. “It has (positively) affected business.”
Even worse for businesses on the California side, many service station operators are being sued by STPUD. While spending money on defending themselves, many operators feel the suit unjustly targets them.
The district filed suit November 1998 against gasoline manufacturers, formulators, distributors and retailers, including several local stations. The multi-million dollar suit targets the parties the district believes are responsible for the contamination threatening the district’s wells.
Witters said his Meyers station doesn’t fit into that category, and yet he is being sued. Last fall, the station was in the process of completing environmental upgrades when a line broke, releasing 600 gallons of gas into the ground. Cleanup began immediately, Witters said.
Wells in the area have been contaminated, but MTBE was discovered in them more than a year earlier. The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board had identified the nearby Meyers Beacon as the responsible party.
Additionally, Witters said, the accident was because of the negligence of Shell-hired contractors and not him.
“I’m still scratching my head as to why STPUD sued me,” he said.
Barker has similar feelings.
“We’ve been complying with everything that’s ever been asked of us. What more could we do?” she said.
“If there was anyone negligent, from my observation, it’s the government (for allowing MTBE to go into gasoline),” she added. “Can you sue the government?”
And then there is the issue of who is being sued. While refusing to name specific stations, some operators feel there are people who have been selectively left out of the suit.
“We’re caught right in the middle, and we have no control over anything,” Montoya said. “Why didn’t they sue everyone instead of certain ones? I could name a few names, but I won’t.”
“I’m upset because key people in town have been left out of the suit, and they have as much contamination as I do,” Witters said.
Said Vick Sher, STPUD’s attorney in the suit: “What we have done with the litigation on the district’s behalf is targeted gas station operators and owners, and the oil companies, that are involved in releases of MTBE-laden gasoline that threaten the district’s groundwater. This is not all sellers of gasoline; it’s not all releases of MTBE in the city or county or any geographic area. It is those that affect the wells the district operates and which otherwise the rate payers would have to bear the expense of cleanup or replacement of the water.”
“State law requires the district to pursue the responsible parties, which are generally defined as the owners or operators of the facility that caused the release or are responsible for it, in order to qualify for funds from the state to help clean them up,” he added.
Al Moss, whose Ski Run Boulevard Chevron station had a leak in March, is not named in the suit. Lahontan has said the contaminant plume is not a threat to STPUD’s wells.
“At the time the lawsuit was started, we didn’t have a problem, and then another thing is our contamination doesn’t impact a well,” Moss said.
STPUD has the option of naming additional people in the lawsuit as investigation continues.
It likely will take at least two years before the suit will go to trial.
“They expect the trial to last three to four months. This will drag on for years,” Barker said. “We are absolutely horrified. This lawsuit has paralyzed virtually everyone involved.”
She said she hopes, as more information is made available to the district, that her station and others will be released from litigation.
“If not, you’re going to see businesses close down. We cannot bear the burden of fighting this lawsuit,” she said. “I don’t see many people standing when it’s all over.”
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