MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) was not a substance most people knew much about, or cared much about - until it started showing up in their drinking water. And it has been showing up a lot in recent years, both in private wells and in public water supplies.
MTBE is a gasoline additive that actually started out as a good thing, praised as a substance that pumped oxygen into gasoline and helped keep the air clean. Though used since the 1970s, MTBE came into wide usage after Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1990 to require oxygenated gas in many states and large cities. Most companies chose MTBE (over corn-based ethanol) to comply with this mandate.
But it has since become public knowledge - some claim the oil companies have known all along - that MTBE is an incredibly invasive and potent pollutant. Just a tiny amount of the highly water-soluble chemical can foul drinking water, giving it a turpentine-like odor and taste.
Besides bad taste, there have also been complaints of headaches, dizziness, irritated eyes, burning of the nose and throat, skin rash, coughing and nausea related to MTBE. The chemical has been found to cause cancer in animals and has been classified as a "possible human carcinogen" by the Environmental Protection Agency.
According to some estimates, MTBE contamination exists in water supplies used by at least 15 million people in 15,000 U.S. communities, schools and businesses. A nationwide study by the U.S. Geological Survey has found MTBE in 86 percent of wells tested in industrial areas, 31 percent in commercial areas and 23 percent in residential areas. The cost of cleanup and containment is estimated at $29 billion.
At least 17 states have moved to ban or cut back on MTBE use. And the topic has sparked debate in Congress, where a proposal to give MTBE manufacturers immunity from pollution claims stalled President Bush's energy bill. Democrat John Kerry said on the campaign trail that he supported New Hampshire's lawsuit against 22 oil companies over MTBE, which has contaminated more than 15 percent of that state's water.
New Hampshire isn't alone.
Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed, some alleging the oil companies knew of the impending problem and didn't care. MTBE makers are accused not only of knowing that the chemical is especially invasive - it spreads quickly, resists biodegradation and can cause harsh odor and taste in concentrations as low as 2 parts per billion - but also that it is difficult to clean up. And it was bound to escape into water supplies from thousands of underground storage tanks that were known to leak.
In one legal case, in Santa Barbara, Calif., several oil companies have agreed to pay $230 million stemming from MTBE pollution. In another, filed in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., four oil companies agreed to a $69 million payment after a jury found MTBE to be a "defective product."
In Delaware, MTBE has been found at low levels in 56 percent of all wells tested. Residents in Kenton, Del., resorted to using whole-house carbon filters after a huge pool of contaminated water was discovered under the town a few years ago.
In Pennsylvania, state environmental officials have noted extensive water contamination, particularly in the southeastern part of the state. Kline & Specter currently is representing a suburban Philadelphia municipal water authority in a lawsuit against MTBE manufacturers.
Kline & Specter, PC, based in Philadelphia and with more than 35 lawyers (several of whom are also highly regarded doctors) has handled MTBE cases and has successfully litigated many product liability and mass tort cases, particularly in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.