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Pennsylvania sues big oil companies for gasoline leak cleanups

| Thursday, June 19, 2014, 7:19 p.m.

Pennsylvania on Thursday sued dozens of oil companies to recoup hundreds of millions of dollars spent cleaning gasoline spills that contaminated groundwater across the state.

One of two lawsuits follows the lead of other states, some of which have won multimillion-dollar judgments on complaints that the companies used the fuel additive MTBE, which they knew was dangerous and would leak from underground storage tanks. The other lawsuit claims companies improperly took money from a state recovery fund established for cleanup costs.

“MTBE-related spills over the past 20 years have cost Pennsylvania hundreds of millions of dollars,” state General Counsel James Schultz said in a statement announcing the lawsuits' filing in state court in Philadelphia. Schultz's office filed the complaints with Attorney General Kathleen Kane and three outside firms.

The lawsuit over the additive named 52 defendants, including Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron, Shell and ConocoPhillips. The lawsuit concerning the Underground Storage Tank Indemnification Fund targets 36 defendants and involves claims that included MTBE spills.

“We have not yet reviewed the state's claims but, generally speaking, the foundation of such litigation is flawed in that energy companies are being held liable not for spilling gasoline, but for simply including oxygenates in gasoline as required by Congress and approved by regulators,” said Exxon Mobil spokesman Bill Holbrook. “These cases are about second-guessing decisions made by state and federal regulators to rely on MTBE-blended gasoline to reduce air pollution. We take very seriously our responsibility to operate in an environmentally sound manner and work hard to protect the health and safety of communities where we operate.”

BP directed a call for comment to Washington attorney Audrey Young, a joint defense spokesperson. Young could not be reached.

A jury in New Hampshire last year ordered Exxon Mobil to pay $236 million to clean up MTBE-related spills. Vermont this month sued many of the same companies named in Pennsylvania's lawsuits. The U.S. Supreme Court in April decided not to overturn a $105 million verdict against Exxon Mobil in New York.

“We learned from some of the lawsuits that have been filed,” said Joshua Maus, a spokesman for Schultz's office. “We have had the advantage to see what has worked in those suits.”

The companies started using MTBE in the late 1970s and increased its use when federal regulators started requiring cleaner-burning gas in polluted areas. The companies relied on the additive for that use even though they knew — according to memos included in the state's complaint — that the chemical was dangerous and harder to clean, the lawsuit claims. Companies phased out its use in 2005.

The companies knew underground tanks were leaking, the state claims.

A spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute declined comment.

The state found MTBE in groundwater in every county, it says. The lawsuit listed 73 leaks, including many in Allegheny, Westmoreland, Butler, Fayette, Beaver and Greene counties. A 1999 leak at an Amoco station in Jeannette cost $1.4 million to clean; a 1994 leak at a Sunoco station in North Huntington cost the state $2 million; and a 1996 leak in Squirrel Hill cost more than $900,000.

The lawsuit does not specify the health risks connected to MTBE, methyl tertiary butyl ether, but the Environmental Protection Agencey says the substance can cause cancer at high doses.

“Given the properties of MTBE and the long history of gasoline releases during distribution, storage, sale and use of MTBE gasoline, widespread MTBE contamination of groundwater from MTBE gasoline was substantially certain and foreseeable by defendants,” the lawsuit states.

The second lawsuit accuses companies of using money from the tank fund while collecting a combined $1 billion from insurance companies to cover the same costs.

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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