Broad Based Environmental and Citizen Coalition Opposes Unprecedented Bailout for Drinking Water Polluters

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

For Release:
October 15, 2003

Contact: Emily Figdor (USPIRG)
202/546-9707

Mark Wittink (Resource Conservation Alliance)
202/387-8034

Joanne Doroshow, Center for Justice & Democracy
212/267-2801

Broad Based Environmental and Citizen Coalition Opposes
Unprecedented Bailout for Drinking Water Polluters

Groups Demand Removal of Key Provision in Energy Bill That Would Shield Oil Companies from Liability and Massive Cleanup Costs for Toxic MTBE Contamination

New York, NY - A broad coalition of 28 national health, environment, science, citizen, taxpayer, and technology organizations sent a letter yesterday urging the U.S. Senate to oppose a highly-controversial provision in the energy bill that would immunize from liability manufacturers of MTBE, a toxic gasoline additive that has polluted drinking water supplies in every state of the nation.

The energy bill, H.R. 6, is currently stalled in a House/Senate conference committee. Last week, 43 senators signed a letter urging conferees to remove the MTBE liability protection. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has already threatened a filibuster if the provision is not removed. Conference chairs Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) are meeting today with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in an effort to move the bill.

Among the groups who signed the letter are the American Lung Association, the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council, Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) and the Consumer Federation of America. These groups join efforts by numerous water organizations, mayors and local officials to oppose the MTBE liability provision. The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, several water utilities and local legislators sent a similar letter last month. A recent Zogby poll showed that 86 percent of Americans believe polluters should pay for the cleanup of MTBE contaminated sites.

The coalition states in their letter that the provision “poses unprecedented environmental and public health risks” and “a serious threat to the underground aquifers that supply half of the nation’s drinking water.…MTBE is a toxic and highly persistent chemical that has been added to gasoline since the late 1970s. U.S. Geological Survey experts estimate that there may be 250,000 leaking underground storage tank releases of MTBE.”

The nationwide cost of MTBE cleanup is estimated at about $30 billion and rising. The coalition warns that MTBE immunity provision would force average Americans to pay for the necessary environmental remediation of toxic sites, and that Congress must not immunize oil and chemical companies from cleaning up MTBE pollution hazards that stretch from coast to coast. The letter states, “Cleaning up one gas station’s MTBE problems can cost more than a million dollars. It would be an enormous financial burden for affected communities to bear these costs. Polluters, not taxpayers or the victims of pollution, should pay for the damages caused by their products.”

The groups signing this letter are:

American Lung Association
Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)
Center for Auto Safety
Center for Food Safety
Center for Health, Environment and Justice
Center for Justice and Democracy
Clean Water Action Project
Consumer Federation of America
Consumers Union
Defenders of Wildlife
Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund
Environmental & Energy Study Institute
Environmental Defense
Environmental Working Group
Essential Information
Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights
Friends of the Earth
Greenpeace
International Center for Technology Assessment
League of Conservation Voters
National Resources Defense Council
Physicians for Social Responsibility
Public Citizen
REAP (Renewable Energy Action Project)
Resource Conservation Alliance
Sierra Club
Union of Concerned Scientists
U.S. Public Interest Research Group

The full text of the letter follows:

October 14, 2003

Dear Senator:

We, the undersigned, strongly urge you to do everything in your power, including filibuster if necessary, to stop an energy bill conference report that includes a provision that would shield oil and chemical companies from liability for contaminating drinking water across the country with the gas additive MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether).

MTBE producers and refiners had extensive knowledge of the toxicity and mobility of MTBE in groundwater yet voluntarily used it as an additive in conventional and reformulated gasoline for decades without alerting their customers, the public, or Congress of the potential hazards. Granting corporate polluters protection from legal claims that past and future MTBE use creates a fuel that is “defective in design or manufacture” poses unprecedented environmental and public health risks because it eliminates a key legal theory requiring cleanup of MTBE contamination. Defective product claims should be fairly decided by courts, not exempted by Congress to protect special interests. Local taxpayers and drinking water ratepayers should not have to bear financial responsibility for cleaning up MTBE problems that they did not cause. According to a September 2003 Zogby poll, Americans believe, by a margin of 86-8%, that oil and chemical companies should be held responsible for paying to cleanup their MTBE contamination.

Known and Potential MTBE Hazards

MTBE is a toxic and highly persistent chemical that has been added to gasoline since the late 1970s. U.S. Geological Survey experts estimate that there may be 250,000 leaking underground storage tank releases of MTBE. Pipeline releases, gas spills, and other sources also contaminate groundwater and surface water with MTBE. MTBE spreads rapidly in water and often pollutes nearby properties or water supply wells.

MTBE poses a serious threat to the underground aquifers that supply half of the nation’s drinking water. A July 2003 U.S. Geological Survey found MTBE in 86% of wells sampled in industrial areas nationwide, 31% in commercial areas, 23% in residential areas, and 23% in areas with mixed urban land use, parks, and recreation areas. In March of 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stated, “The use of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) in our nation’s fuel supply has created a significant and unacceptable risk to drinking water and ground water resources.”

Enormous MTBE Cleanup Costs

The estimated cost of cleaning up MTBE contamination nationwide is $30 billion and growing. Supply wells or reservoirs polluted with MTBE can require treatment systems that cost millions of dollars in capital construction costs and tens of millions of dollars in long-term operation and maintenance costs. Cleaning up one gas station’s MTBE problems can cost more than a million dollars. It would be an enormous financial burden for affected communities to bear these costs. Polluters, not taxpayers or the victims of pollution, should pay for the damages caused by their products.

We strongly urge you to use every tool at your disposal to ensure that the oil and chemical industries remain fully liable for contaminating the nation’s water supply with MTBE.

Sincerely,

American Lung Association
Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)
Center for Auto Safety
Center for Food Safety
Center for Health, Environment and Justice
Center for Justice and Democracy
Clean Water Action Project
Consumer Federation of America
Consumers Union
Defenders of Wildlife
Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund
Environmental & Energy Study Institute
Environmental Defense
Environmental Working Group
Essential Information
Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights
Friends of the Earth
Greenpeace
International Center for Technology Assessment
League of Conservation Voters
National Resources Defense Council
Physicians for Social Responsibility
Public Citizen
REAP (Renewable Energy Action Project)
Resource Conservation Alliance
Sierra Club
Union of Concerned Scientists
U.S. Public Interest Research Group

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