Court: Exxon-Mobil Guilty In N.H. Contamination Suit
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A jury in New Hampshire has ruled that Exxon-Mobile must pay the state $236 million. The money would help clean groundwater that was contaminated with a gasoline additive known as MTBE. But as New Hampshire Public Radio's Sam Evans-Brown reports, the story doesn't end there.
SAM EVANS-BROWN, BYLINE: In a little state like New Hampshire, $236 million is nothing to sneeze at.
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ATTORNEY GENERAL MIKE DELANEY: This is the largest verdict obtained by the state of New Hampshire in the history of the state.
EVANS-BROWN: That's Attorney General Mike Delaney announcing the verdict to reporters. He says it took 10 years to bring it to trial, and three months of hearings to get through all the evidence.
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DELANEY: But it took the jury approximately two hours to hold Exxon responsible for contaminating the state's groundwater.
EVANS-BROWN: Oil companies started adding low levels of MTBE to gas in 1979 to replace lead. Its use was ramped up in the 1990s because it reduces smog and gas makers were trying to comply with the Clean Air Act. It was sold in gas stations in places were poor air quality was a problem - from coastal New England to California and lots of places in between.
But when it became clear that the chemical could seep out of a storage tank and contaminate ground water, states and water suppliers started to sue. New Hampshire's lead attorney in the case, Jessica Grant, says many in the industry knew of the risks posed by MTBE.
JESSICA GRANT: Exxon had done a 15-month companywide study, where their own environmental engineers had concluded that the environmental risks associated with MTBE gasoline were so great that it should not be used on a blanket basis in the United States.
EVANS-BROWN: As the lawsuits rolled in, many oil companies settled out of court, including most in New Hampshire. The state has already accrued $136 million in settlements from Shell, Citgo, Irving, Hess, and ConocoPhillips, among others. But Exxon stood fast. The company's attorney in the New Hampshire trial, Jim Quinn, explains that despite their loss this week, he still believes they've got a good case.
JIM QUINN: MTBE worked exactly as it was supposed to. The government essentially put us into a position where MTBE had to be put into the gasoline. We didn't have another choice.
EVANS-BROWN: Exxon argues it was MTBE or nothing. And since the EPA approved the chemical to clean up the nation's smog problem, they say it's the feds who should be liable for damages. Jeffrey Rachlinski is a law professor at Cornell who has been following the case. He says the problem is states can't sue federal government over this.
JEFF RACHLINSKI: The states really don't have the capacity to sue the federal government this way. There's essentially sovereign immunity by the federal government for this sort of a statute.
EVANS-BROWN: Exxon is fighting similar cases in other states. In Maryland there were two cases in which the plaintiffs were awarded $1.65 billion dollars. But in February, another Maryland court threw those rulings out. However, one MTBE case has made it to the federal level so far. A district court in New York ruled against Exxon. The company is appealing that ruling, and says it will appeal the New Hampshire decision as well. For NPR News, I'm Sam Evans-Brown in Concord, New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.