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Frosh seeks outside help for well pollution lawsuit

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh is seeking outside help to pursue a lawsuit against the oil industry for putting an additive in gasoline that caused widespread contamination of ground water across the state.

A notice posted on the attorney general's website Tuesday invites proposals from private lawyers interested in serving as "special litigation counsel" in developing a case against refiners for using methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, in fuel sold in Maryland and much of the rest of the nation.

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"We're looking to compensate the state for the damages that it suffered, and is likely to continue to suffer, because we've got contamination of waters all around the state," Frosh said in an interview.

Frosh's predecessor, Douglas Gansler, solicited outside legal advice on whether Maryland could successfully bring a lawsuit against the oil industry for its use of MTBE. Frosh said that advice – and sizable settlements and verdicts won in other states - prompted his decision to go ahead. Proposals are due by June 16.

MTBE was put in gas in the 1990s to reduce summertime smog, but it later became implicated in well contamination. There have been nearly 12,000 fuel spills or leaks in Maryland over the years, according to the attorney general's notice, and MTBE figures in 336 still-active cleanups affecting 673 drinking water wells. State regulators typically force the source of a fuel leak to clean it up, but the state has spent $18 million on cleanups where no responsible party could be found, the notice said.

MTBE was removed from gasoline in 2006, and a spokesman for industry leader Exxon Mobil Corp. suggested any lingering contamination in the state's ground water is "rapidly decreasing." The spokesman, Todd Spitler, called MTBE litigation filed elsewhere "second-guessing" of authorities' decision to use it to fight air pollution. Before the state hires outside lawyers, Spitler urged, "the two sides should work collaboratively to discuss the issue and possible solutions."

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