Maryland clears hurdle in lawsuit over gasoline groundwater pollution

A logo of the Exxon Mobil Corp is seen at the Rio Oil and Gas Expo and Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil September 24, 2018. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes
  • Judge allows all but one claim to proceed against defendants including Exxon Mobil Corp
  • Lawsuit accuses 65 gasoline manufacturers, marketers and distributors of contaminating waters with additive MTBE

(Reuters) - A federal judge in Maryland on Wednesday mostly denied a bid by Exxon Mobil Corp and dozens of other defendants to toss claims that they contaminated the state's groundwaters with a gasoline additive.

U.S. District Judge Stephanie Gallagher in Baltimore denied the defendants' request to throw out about a dozen claims accusing them of sullying groundwater at 41 sites with methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE. She agreed to toss one claim alleging the companies should be held liable under a state environmental abatement provision.

Exxon Mobil, which had filed a motion for partial summary judgment on behalf of itself and its co-defendants, did not respond to a request for comments. The co-defendants include BP America Inc and Chevron U.S.A. Inc, which also did not respond to requests for comment.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, who sued in 2018, said he was "pleased that the federal court rejected the efforts of Exxon and other petroleum companies to escape having to pay for the groundwater contamination that they knew their gasoline additive would cause.”

Maryland's lawsuit accuses about 65 manufacturers, marketers and distributors of gasoline of contaminating its waters with the additive MTBE, which was commonly blended into gasoline in the 1980s and 1990s. The defendants knew or should have known that MTBE has a propensity to leak from storage tanks, its complaint says.

The defendants asked the judge in July to dismiss claims related to 41 of 50 sites in the litigation. They argued that Maryland's claims as to the so-called "focus sites," which include convenience stores and a community college, fail because Maryland's Department of the Environment had classified each as "closed," meaning a cleanup of oil spills was previously completed.

Gallagher agreed that the state cannot bring a claim under the same provision of a state law – Maryland's Environment Article – that it invoked earlier to have the sites cleaned up and closed. But the judge refused to dismiss the state's remaining claims related to the sites, finding Maryland is not barred from pursuing them even if the sites have been closed.

Those claims range from defective design to trespass and creating a public nuisance.

The case is State of Maryland v. Exxon Mobil Corp, U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, No. 1:18-cv-00459.

For State of Maryland: Adam Snyder, Matthew Zimmerman and with the Office of the Attorney General of Maryland; and Scott Kauff of DemaLaw

For Exxon Mobil Corp: James Pardo and Lisa Gerson of McDermott Will and Emery

For BP American Inc: William Carrier of Tydings & Rosenberg

For Chevron U.S.A. Inc: Daniel Sale of King & Spalding

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

New York-based correspondent covering environmental, climate and energy litigation.