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Utility may learn today how much it will get from oil companies

Susan Wood, Tahoe Daily Tribune

A break in the penalty phase of a landmark civil case against oil refiners that used MTBE and consequently polluted Lake Tahoe’s groundwater is expected today.

The plaintiff, South Tahoe Public Utility District, its attorneys and other associated parties are bound by a gag order imposed by San Francisco Superior Court Judge Carlos Bea when the jury handed a victory to the water district in April.

After a five-month trial ending the liability phase of the case, the jury labeled methyl tertiary butyl ether a “defective” product and determined the defendants, Shell Oil, Lyondell Chemical Co. and Tosco Corp. acted with malice when it was used in the gasoline sold in the early to mid 1990s.



MTBE has been used as an oxygenate in gasoline to help certain regions reach clean air standards.

The STPUD suit seeks to recover tens of millions of dollars from the refiners to remove the fuel additive from water wells serving 13,000 homes and businesses on the South Shore.



The district was forced to shut down a dozen of its 34 wells when the additive was discovered leaking from underground storage tanks.

STPUD wants to use the anticipated monies from punitive damages to treat the water supply, dig new wells and build other distribution systems.

It will take an estimated $45 million to clean up the sites — many located near filling station storage tanks.

The water district filed suit in November 1998, accusing the national refiners and South Shore gas stations of “negligently, carelessly and recklessly” dispensing and marketing the substance when they knew that MTBE would reach groundwater, pollute public water supplies and threaten public health,” the legal complaint reads.


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