Ending one chapter in a long and controversial battle, Chevron, BP and several other major oil companies have agreed to pay $423 million to settle more than 500 lawsuits over water contamination stemming from leaking underground gasoline storage tanks, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The settlement covers the oil companies' use of the additive MTBE, or methyl tertiary-butyl ether. It was added to gasoline in many regions in the country to satisfy a congressional mandate to boost the oxygen content of gasoline, to reduce air pollution.
MTBE and ethanol were the two candidate additives, but MTBE was a byproduct of refining, could be easily transported and stored, and was cheaper. The problem is that it traveled far in groundwater and could contaminate wells far away from the source of pollution. It contaminated the water supply for millions of people using both public and private water supplies.
The health effects of drinking small quantities of MTBE are in dispute, as they are with so many industrial chemicals. But there's evidence it can cause serious health problems, including cancer. The oil companies, of course, dispute the risk.
The lawsuits against oil companies have been controversial for a variety of reasons, not least that Congress first mandated the use of an oxygenate. The oil companies, as is common with settlements of this kind, deny any wrongdoing. And for some big plaintiffs, Exxon Mobil among them, the fight goes on.
For those with polluted water, though, the settlement represents some proof that their concerns are real.
No word on how much of the $423 million settlement lawyers will take, and how much will go to affected communities.
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