Two towns sue over gasoline additives in drinking water

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(Host) Two Vermont communities have filed suit against the major oil companies over a gasoline additive that has contaminated dozens of wells. The attorney general says the state has no plans to take action against the companies as a result of the contamination.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) The additive, methyl tertiary butyl ether – or MTBE, has been used in gasoline since the 1980s. It’s present as an anti-knock agent in gasoline sold in Vermont.

Attorney David Silver has filed the suit on behalf of the town of Hartland and the Craftsbury Fire District Number Two, which supplies water to Craftsbury Common. Silver says the suit is similar to others filed against the oil companies. He says it contends the companies knew years ago that MTBE, once in the ground, moves faster and farther than other gasoline additives and that it would threaten water supplies.

(Silver) “A 1990 government study reported that, of six million underground storage tanks in the Unites States, two million were leaking. So the oil companies knew that if you added MTBE to the gas supply of the United States, it would leak into the water supply of the United States. But they decided to use MTBE because it was cheaper for them than a safe additive.”

(Zind) According to the Environmental Protection Agency the inhalation of high concentrations of MTBE has caused cancer in laboratory animals. But the EPA says there isn’t enough research to estimate the potential health risks of MTBE in drinking water. The presence of MTBE does give water an unpleasant taste and smell.

Silver says he hopes the state will take action against the oil companies. But Vermont Attorney General Williams Sorrell says, based on discussions with the Agency of Natural Resources, the state has no plans to join a lawsuit.

(Sorrell) “Our understanding, we’ve talked to the ANR folks, is that those additives have not negatively impacted drinking water systems in Vermont. If that perception changes and they are in touch with us and they say, Oh no, we’ve got a big problem in this or that water systems, then we would revisit it. But my understanding is the facts are very different in Vermont than they are in New Hampshire.”

(Zind) In New Hampshire, MTBE is used in higher concentrations to reduce emissions under the requirements of the Clean Air Act. Citing the presence of MTBE in more than 15 percent of the state’s public water supplies, the New Hampshire Attorney General is suing the oil companies.

Vermont officials say slightly fewer than 15 percent of the state’s public water systems have tested positive for MTBE. In most cases, equipment has been installed to filter out the additive. The state pays for the filters for both public and private wells; the money comes from the Vermont Petroleum Cleanup Fund. Officials say of the $50 million the fund has paid out since 1988, $10 million has been used for MTBE-related contamination.

In Hartland, where 38 private wells have been contaminated by MTBE, Town Manager Bob Stacey says officials are tracking the movement of the underground plume from a 1997 gasoline spill.

(Stacey) “The plume is heading toward the grade school.”

(Zind) Stacey says the town is making plans to protect the school’s water supply from MTBE contamination.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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