Maryland sues petroleum companies over groundwater contamination

Maryland has filed a lawsuit against more than 50 petroleum-related companies over groundwater pollution from a chemical compound that used to be common in gasoline.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Baltimore City Circuit Court by Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh’s office, alleges that ExxonMobil, Chevron, and dozens other companies knew a fuel additive called methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, would contaminate groundwater and tried to obstruct research about its harmful effects.

“Our water is a vital public resource and a source of drinking water for a large number of Maryland residents,” Frosh said in a statement. “These companies knew that the use and sale of MTBE gasoline in Maryland would contaminate the State’s drinking water and render a lot of it virtually undrinkable. Together with the Maryland Departments of Health and the Environment, we are bringing this suit to ensure that the State’s water resources are restored.”

The American Fuel & Petroleum Manufacturers, which represents petroleum companies, blasted the lawsuit as misguided and misdirected.

“The Attorney General of Maryland has filed a misguided and misdirected suit that amounts to taking punitive action against companies for complying with federal law. “In the 1990s, refiners added MTBE to gasoline because it was the only EPA-approved additive viable at the time to comply with the Clean Air Act mandate to oxygenate gasoline,” said Chet Thompson, president and CEO of the association, in a statement. “Our industry believes companies should remain responsible for environmental stewardship, but this lawsuit is directed at entities who were not responsible for the product spill.”

Maryland has a regulatory system for companies to address spills and conduct clean ups, Thompson said. “This system has been effective and should be used instead of litigation by plaintiffs hoping for a payday.”

A spokesman for Chevron said he could not comment because the company had not yet been served. ExxonMobil referred questions to the American Fuel & Petroleum Manufacturers. ConocoPhillips and Marathon, also named in the suit, declined comment.

MTBE was used as a fuel additive in gasoline beginning in the late 1970s. The chemicals were discharged into the environment from leaking underground storage tanks, which caused groundwater contamination in the state, according to the lawsuit.

The chemical compound has since been replaced with ethanol.

Still, polluted groundwater remains and the state is seeking to recover the costs of inspecting and cleaning up the contamination. The suit also seeks punitive damages, interest and attorney’s fees.

“This is yet another area in which the Hogan administration is showing leadership to protect and preserve Maryland’s environment and vital natural resources,” said Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan.

In September, the state sued the EPA for cross-state air pollution. The lawsuit aims to push EPA to enforce stricter pollution controls at power plants in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia that contribute much of the smog in Maryland’s air in the summer.

Maryland isn’t the first to sue over MTBE contamination.

New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico are also pursuing cases against petroleum companies.

Maryland has retained private law offices of John K. Dema, Miller & Axline, and Berger & Montague, to assist with the lawsuit.

The three firms are representing New Jersey in its MTBE case and two are representing Puerto Rico and Pennsylvania.

sarah.gantz@baltsun.com

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