Chemical industry braces for hundreds of lawsuits over widespread contamination from MTBE gasoline

by Charles Miller

Dozens of oil, gas, and chemical companies are facing hundreds of class action and personal injury lawsuits over water contamination linked to the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). Until 2005, MTBE was commonly mixed with gasoline in the U.S. to increase the fuel efficiency of motor vehicles, but has since been phased out after it was linked to numerous cases of groundwater contamination and a potential increased cancer risk.

MTBE was first used as a gasoline additive in 1979 to prevent car engines from “knocking,” and thus helping to improve the fuel efficiency of these vehicles. After Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1990—which called for the use of oxygenated gasoline in areas with high levels of air pollution—MTBE became a common fuel additive in gasoline sold in the U.S.

MTBE linked to widespread groundwater contamination

Although MTBE was effective at reducing levels of smog-forming pollutants (volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides) and toxins (such as benzene) in the air, problems soon became apparent due to numerous cases of groundwater contamination from fuel tanks that contained MTBE-enriched gasoline. Because MTBE is much more water soluble than gasoline, the additive can rapidly leech into groundwater when a leak occurs. Wells and other water sources can be rendered undrinkable by MTBE contamination and may pose an increased cancer risk to nearby residents.

In response to the widespread groundwater contamination linked to wells and tanks containing MTBE-enriched gasoline, 19 states banned the use of MTBE as a fuel additive between 2000 and 2005. Following the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 by Congress, the use of MTBE as a fuel-additive was phased out nationwide.

Despite these efforts, groundwater contamination from gasoline that was enriched with MTBE continues to be a significant problem. Hundreds of water wells in the U.S. have been rendered undrinkable as a result of MTBE contamination, costing state and local officials billions of dollars in cleanup costs.

Hundreds of MTBE lawsuits filed against energy companies

Attorney generals in states such as New York, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Vermont have filed lawsuits against dozens of petroleum companies for their role in the massive groundwater contamination caused by MTBE. These lawsuits allege that major petroleum companies were aware of the environmental risks associated with MTBE and of hundreds of thousands of leaking underground fuel tanks during the 1980s, but tried to withhold information about the risks of MTBE and discredit evidence about the contamination from government regulators and the public.

In 2008, several petroleum companies—including BP Amoco, Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO), Chevron USA, ConocoPhillips, Shell Petroleum, Marathon Oil, Valero Energy, Citgo Petroleum, and Sunoco—agreed to pay $422 million to settle lawsuits filed on behalf of dozens of public water systems nationwide. The settlement requires the companies to pay treatment costs over the next 30 years for wells that become contaminated with MTBE.

Other energy companies—including Exxon and Lyondell Chemical—have been less willing to settle MTBE lawsuits filed against them. Although Exxon reached settlement agreements in about a dozen lawsuits filed by victims of MTBE contamination, the company has challenged other lawsuits filed over the gasoline additive, claiming that they were pre-empted under the Clean Air Act. Exxon challenged a $105 million verdict in an MTBE case filed by the New York attorney general, but the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the company’s appeal, upholding the New York jury’s verdict. A $236 million award in a similar lawsuit filed in New Hampshire is also being appealed by the company.

Hundreds of lawsuits have also been filed against companies who produced MTBE by families and individuals whose health may be at risk from exposure to this chemical. In addition to the groundwater contamination that has been linked to MTBE, exposure to the chemical has also been associated with rashes, eye irritation, headaches, dizziness, coughs, nausea, and a potential for increased cancer risk. Class action lawsuits have also been filed alleging bodily injury, property damage, and soil or groundwater contamination caused by MTBE.

Chemical Exposure Victims Have Legal Rights

If you or a loved one has been the victim of chemical exposure or other forms of caused by the negligence of an oil, natural gas, or chemical company, you may be eligible to file a lawsuit and receive compensation for the injuries you have suffered.

Filing a lawsuit against a petroleum company can be expensive, difficult, and time-consuming. The chemical industry is willing to use their resources to fight long and hard to avoid financial responsibility for the damage caused by their products. To even the playing field, victims of chemical exposure need experienced, dedicated attorneys with the legal and financial resources to bring their case to trial.

Contact the lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson for your free case evaluation and to learn more about your legal right to compensation. You can reach us by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001, or by following the link to our free case evaluation form.


Case results depend upon a variety of factors unique to each case. Results of other cases do not guarantee or predict a similar result in any future case.

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by Charles Miller

Charles Miller is a licensed attorney and a partner at Heygood, Orr & Pearson. Charles focuses his practice on areas of complex commercial litigation and personal injury litigation.