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Contamination fight heats up

After sitting for a while on simmer, a legal battle between the Crescenta Valley Water District and a consortium of gas companies regarding contaminated groundwater is coming to a slow boil.

The 2007 case has been meandering through the court system, including making a stop at a New York federal court. But now a trial date on the district’s home turf has been set for August.

The $50 million-plus lawsuit has its roots in 2004, when district officials first detected the gasoline additive Methyl Tertiary-butyl Ether, or MTBE, in the ground near several gas stations along Foothill Boulevard, as well as in well water. Officials shut down two wells, as their MTBE levels were more than 10 times the state limit of 5 parts per billion. Currently, all wells fall below the state cap, according to court documents.

The district is suing Exxon Mobil Corp., Shell Oil Co., Chevron U.S.A Inc. and 15 others, not only for the past expense of the leak, but also for expected future damages. The district also argues the oil companies should be held liable for putting the additive in gasoline in the first place, according to court documents filed earlier this month.


“Our point of view is that not only were wells contaminated in the past by MTBE, but they will continue to be contaminated into the future as the plume of MTBE moves beneath the ground,” said Tom Bunn, the district’s general counsel.

However, according to court documents filed by the gas companies, the district does not have reliable evidence that the plume will infect wells in the future. Nor can they be held liable for using MTBE because regulators in the 1990s required cleaner burning gas to improve air quality. MTBE did just that by oxygenating the fuel, the gas companies say.

“The likelihood that MTBE will meaningfully impact CVWD’s wells has diminished to the point of non-existence since the case was filed,” according the gas companies’ court filings. “Defendants used a federally approved additive that was necessary to comply with federal and state environmental laws and should not be punished for doing so.”

Water infused with MTBE has a foul taste and odor. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the health hazards of low doses of MTBE are unknown, but in high quantities, it is a potential human carcinogen. It no longer is used to oxygenate gasoline.


In 2009, the state Department of Public Health agreed to pay for a treatment system at one of Crescenta Valley’s contaminated wells. But the system was never installed, as MTBE levels dropped below the state cap without it, according to court records.

Despite the current low levels of MTBE, Crescenta Valley continues to purchase water from MWD because there’s not enough groundwater to service all customers, and some water high in nitrates must be blended with imported water, Bunn said.

Crescenta Valley isn’t alone in its fight to get gas companies to pay for MTBE headaches. Gas companies have been sued over MTBE since 1998, with the bulk of cases filed since 2002 being settled, according to a website sponsored by Chevron, Shell and BP Products North America Inc.

The Crescenta Valley case was bundled with dozens of similar lawsuits sent to a New York federal court for pre-trial proceedings. It’s since been separated from the pack and transferred back to California for trial.