[Editor’s note: At issue in a federal court trial in Manhattan is use of a gasoline additive, MTBE, which enhanced engine performance.]

Lawyers for New York City are trying to convince a jury in a federal trial that Exxon Mobil knew that an additive that it used in gasoline would contaminate groundwater.

The trial, which began on Tuesday before Judge Shira A. Scheindlin of United States District Court in Manhattan, is one of hundreds of cases that have been presented around the country against oil companies over the additive, M.T.B.E., a chemical compound that replaced lead in gasoline as an octane enhancer. Such enhancers boost engine performance and help prevent knocking.

New York City’s case against Exxon Mobil arose from the contamination of groundwater wells in Jamaica, Queens, that are designated as part of a backup system for drinking water in emergencies or droughts. In 2003, the city sued 23 oil companies over the contamination; it has reached settlements with 22, for a combined $15 million.

The Environmental Protection Agency says that even low levels of M.T.B.E. can make water undrinkable because of its taste and odor. While researchers have limited data on its health effects on humans, it is considered a carcinogen in high doses in animals.

Like ethanol, M.T.B.E., methyl tert-butyl ether, helps gasoline burn more cleanly and reduces tailpipe emissions. But it is also highly soluble in water, and fuel leaks from storage tanks and other sources have contaminated groundwater that is often a source of drinking water.

Twenty-five states, including New York, have restricted or banned M.T.B.E.

In opening statements on Tuesday, the lawyer for the city, Victor Sher, argued that Exxon, which started using M.B.T.E. in the 1980s, ignored evidence from its own scientists of a strong risk of groundwater contamination should the compound be added to gasoline. Mr. Sher argued that the company could have used ethanol, a more expensive octane enhancer that does not pose the same hazard.

But Exxon Mobil’s lawyer, Peter John Sacripanti, told jurors that oil companies initially used more M.T.B.E. than ethanol as a substitute for lead because the supply of ethanol was limited and car manufacturers had serious concerns that it would diminish vehicles’ performance. The company denies any liability.

Mr. Sher said 39 of 68 wells in Queens show M.T.B.E. contamination. But the focus of the trial is five contaminated wells that can yield about 10 million gallons a day to supplement water sources in cases of failure in the upstate reservoir system that provides New York City’s drinking water. City officials say a $250 million treatment facility would have to be built to make the water in the wells drinkable.

The company says that the wells are contaminated by other industry in the area. It adds that the city does not intend to build the treatment plant and has other projects under way to provide other backup sources of water.

The jury must rule on several elements of the case, including whether the city intends to build the treatment plant, the extent of M.T.B.E. contamination and the size of any punitive damages.


Related article: 20th Birthday of the Exxon Valdez Lie, by Greg Palast, Voltaire Network; 25 March 2009.

Source: The New York Times