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Rhode Island announces additional million-dollar settlement with major oil and gas companies over MTBE contamination

Christian Fernsby |
Attorney General Peter F. Neronha announced that his office has resolved Rhode Island’s lawsuit against two of the nation’s largest refiners of gasoline.

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The State’s case, filed in September 2016, alleged that Coastal Corporation (Coastal) and British Petroleum (BP) – along with several other refiners – caused pollution of Rhode Island’s soil and groundwater with the gasoline additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE).

As a part of the settlement, Coastal ($940,000) and BP ($205,000 in principle) will pay the State a combined $1.145 million, which will be dedicated to emergency response and ongoing MTBE contamination remediation efforts by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).

The Attorney General is responsible for overseeing the distribution and use of the settlement funds to ensure consistency with the terms in the consent judgment.

Rhode Island has previously entered into settlement agreements with other major refiners, totaling approximately $18.7 million, for their role in MTBE contamination, including: Shell, Sunoco, CITGO, Hess, Total Petrochemicals & Refining USA, Inc. (TPRI), Marathon, Conoco, Chevron, Irving, and Valero.

The total amount recovered by Rhode Island from the MTBE litigation now totals more than $19.85 million.

Litigation against the single remaining major gas refinery in Rhode Island’s lawsuit, Exxon Mobil, remains ongoing.

For decades, MTBE has leaked from underground storage tanks such as those typically found at gas stations and contaminated groundwater and soils throughout the United States, including Rhode Island.

Research shows that MTBE's presence in drinking water, even at extremely low levels, could pose serious health risks. MTBE can give water a strong turpentine-like taste and odor, its removal is costly, and it is considered a probable human carcinogen.

Rhode Island banned the use of MTBE in 2007, but MTBE continues to contaminate portions of groundwater throughout the state.

The State’s lawsuit alleges that the gas companies promoted, marketed, distributed, supplied, and sold gasoline and other petroleum products containing MTBE, when they knew, or reasonably should have known, that MTBE would be released into the environment and cause contamination in Rhode Island’s water supply – threatening public health and welfare.

“MBTE contamination of public water supplies poses a significant public health and safety risk, one which oil and gas companies knew about well before the public did,” said Attorney General Neronha.

“The work to remediate contaminated water supplies continues, and the funds recovered to date, now totaling nearly $20 million, will be exclusively dedicated to doing that work. In the meantime, this Office remains strongly committed to ensuring that the remaining oil and gas defendants are held responsible for the damage they have caused to the people of Rhode Island and the environment.”

In 2012, a class action lawsuit resulted in a separate settlement with Exxon Mobile for $7 million, stemming from a 2001 MTBE contamination of Pascoag’s water supply.

After MTBE was detected in Pascoag’s drinking water, the town’s only well was shut down, leaving residents without a supply of water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. Levels of MTBE measured in a nearby bedrock aquifer reached concentrations up to 1,000 times higher than approved drinking water limits.


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