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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

MTBE & Liability

Air Date: Week of

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The carcinogenic gasoline additive MTBE has been found in water systems across the country and cleaning it up could cost tens of billions of dollars. Now, a clause in the massive energy bill before Congress could protect MTBE makers from contamination lawsuits. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports from Washington.



CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The chemical methyl tertiary butyl ether has done both good and bad things for the environment. MTBE, as it’s known, makes gasoline burn more efficiently in cars, reducing air pollution. But in 25 states it’s also a major source of water contamination. This cancer-causing chemical has been detected in water systems serving millions of Americans. And cleaning it up could cost nearly thirty billion dollars. The companies that make and use MTBE want Congress to protect them from some lawsuits seeking cleanup costs. And there’s a provision in the pending energy bill to do just that. Critics call it a special interest giveaway. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.

YOUNG: Some call MTBE the "Houdini chemical.” It has a nasty habit of slipping out of gas storage tanks and into ground water supplies. Just tiny amounts can make water smell and taste like turpentine. And health officials suspect it could cause cancer and other health problems. So, faced with a massive cleanup some city water systems took the companies who make and use MTBE to court. American Waterworks Association Vice President Tom Curtis says court records show the companies knew decades ago about the problems with MTBE.

CURTIS: They knew that it leaked much more readily than other components of gas, that it spread more quickly and was enormously expensive to clean up. Nonetheless, they decided to use MTBE in their product. That makes that product defective according to at least a couple of juries in lawsuits that have been brought.

YOUNG: The oil and chemical companies settled one California contamination suit for almost 70 million dollars. Then, Curtis says, they turned from the courts to Congress.

The companies hired lobbyists like Frank Maisano to make their argument to the lawmakers who were crafting a sweeping energy bill.

MAISANO: MTBE is really not a defective product.

YOUNG: Maisano says the chemical is very good at its intended purpose of making gasburn more cleanly. That’s why the federal government encouraged the use of gasoline additives – such as MTBE or ethanol – in the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. Maisano says MTBE companies deserve protection from defective product lawsuits. He says that still allows for other lawsuits.

MAISANO: They’re still gonna be allowed to file dozens of suits regarding contamination based on negligence, spills, contamination of gasoline. And they’ll argue that “oh, that’s only gonna target the mom and pop gasoline store.” Well, the mom and pop gasoline store ought to be one of the targets. The reality here is storage tanks leaked, people mishandled the gasoline, and those are the people who ought to be responsible

YOUNG: Maisano also says the 29 billion estimated cost for MTBE cleanup is exaggerated. But the Waterworks Association’s Curtis says that figure is probably too low. And he says the approach Maisano suggests won’t come close to solving the problem.

CURTIS: The owner of gas station on the corner is probably a small businessman. He hasn’t been negligent in selling the product that was given to him by the gasoline manufacturers. Why should he pay the bill? So the immunity provision they are seeking isn’t about common sense and it isn’t about the common good. It’s about special interest politics. It’s about how readily big money can buy itself an amendment in a bill like the energy bill these days.

YOUNG: About the time lawmakers first considered the energy bill, and water systems filed the first MTBE suits, some of the chemical’s makers increased their efforts to influence Congress.

WEISS: Probably not a coincidence. Companies generally give more money when there is a specific concern they have.

YOUNG: That’s Steve Weiss with the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group tracking campaign funding. Campaign finance records show one of the country’s top MTBE makers, Lyondell Petrochemicals of Houston, gave about half a million dollars to candidates over the past five years. And the company’s lobbying expenses jumped from a modest 40 thousand a year five years ago to nearly three million dollars over the past year and a half. Weiss says Lyondell’s spending stands out.

WEISS: In the 2001-2002 election cycle the company was among top five contributors among all chemical manufacturers. And so far in 2003-2004 election cycle the company is number one among all chemical manufacturers in terms of campaign giving.

YOUNG: A Lyondell spokesperson was not available for comment. Lyondell’s top recipients in the House of Representatives are three Republican leaders: Energy Committee chair Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, Joe Barton of Texas and Majority leader Tom Delay of Texas. Those are also the strongest supporters of the liability protection for MTBE companies, most of which are in Texas and Louisiana. Staffers say the Congressmen were too busy to comment. They’re among the lawmakers rewriting the massive energy bill in a conference committee.

Observers say they expect the bill’s final version will not only shield companies from suits but make that protection retroactive to October first, or even earlier, blocking many recent suits already filed. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.



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