Poisoning The Water Hole: Exxon Loses In Court, Will Appeal

A jury in New Hampshire found ExxonMobil guilty of negligence for contaminating drinking water with MTBE, a gasoline additive.

A New Hampshire jury found Exxon Mobil Corp. negligent in adding MTBE to gasoline and contaminating the state’s drinking water. The jury will continue to deliberate to determine what the company will pay in damages.

Exxon Mobil, the last defendant in the state’s lawsuit, had been on trial since Jan. 14 in Concord. The jury announced its partial verdict today about two hours after it began to deliberate.

The state is seeking monetary damages from Exxon Mobil based on its share of gasoline sales in New Hampshire during the period covered by the suit. Jurors said today that the market share was 29 percent. With a projected cost of $816 million to test, monitor and clean up wells, New Hampshire asked the jury to award it $236 million.

All other oil companies named in the suit (Shell, Sunoco, ConocoPhillips, Irving Oil, Vitol SA, Hess, and Citgo) have already settled with the state. Exxon was the lone holdout. Other suits in other states stemming from action started in 2000 have been consolidated in federal court and have not gone to trial yet.

What did the jury find compelling in the state’s argument? We may never know exactly, but there is probably more to it than the fact that the company made billions in profits while paying a minuscule tax rate as gasoline prices soared last year.

MTBE increases the oxygen content of fuel, making it burn more completely. Witnesses told the jury that the ethanol could have been used in place of MTBE, which causes tumors and other illnesses in rats and mice. Ethanol, for all its drawbacks (which may eventually decrease), does not do that. They estimated that 5,590 New Hampshire wells had MBTE levels that were unfit for drinking water.

So Exxon lost a court case (which it will appeal) for negligently poisoning drinking water. Exxon is also fighting EPA rules that make cars run more efficiently and use less gasoline. It dodges paying taxes on pumping tar sands oil through (and occasionally spilling it on) America.

No matter which gasoline additive is used, the fuel still gets burned, which puts more carbon pollution into the atmosphere and helps cause climate change. Efficient engines and reducing the amount of fuel is the best way to stop all types of pollution.

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