A federal jury found Exxon Mobil liable for contaminating groundwater in New York City and awarded the city $104.7 million in compensatory damages.
The city had sought $250 million in damages to finance construction of a treatment plant to make the water in five wells in southeastern Queens drinkable. But lawyers for the city called the jury’s decision a “total victory” for their side.
Dozens of similar cases are pending against oil companies nationwide over the contamination of groundwater by the additive M.T.B.E., which is highly soluble in water and has leaked from underground storage tanks across the country.
The city’s lead lawyer, Vic Sher, hailed the decision. “It sends a clear signal that juries have no tolerance for big oil companies whose products pollute drinking water and that these companies have an obligation to take steps to make sure this kind of pollution doesn’t happen,” said Mr. Sher.
The jury, which had been hearing the case since August and had already found against Exxon in two earlier stages of the trial, determined that Exxon knew of the potential for groundwater contamination when it added M.T.B.E. to gasoline and failed to warn government agencies, gas station owners and the public about the danger.
Like ethanol, M.T.B.E., or methyl tertiary butyl ether, helps gasoline burn more cleanly and reduces tailpipe emissions. But the Environmental Protection Agency says M.T.B.E. can make water undrinkable because of its taste and odor. There is limited data on its health effects on humans, but it is considered a carcinogen in high doses in animals, and 25 states, including New York, now ban or restrict its use.
In 2003 the city sued 23 oil companies over M.T.B.E. contamination from fuel leaks from gas station storage tanks. It reached settlements totaling $15 million with all of the companies except for Exxon.
The jury, which heard the case before Judge Scheindlin of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, sought in its deliberations to calculate what percentage of fault Exxon bore compared with other oil companies that also polluted the groundwater.
City officials said the money would go toward installing and upgrading water treatment stations to remove M.T.B.E. and make drinking water available to Queens residents when parts of the upstate reservoir system that supplies the city’s water are out of service during repairs, droughts and other emergencies.
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