The world’s largest oil company will have to foot some of the multimillion-dollar bill for the cleanup of the drinking water under southeast Queens, a federal judge ruled Monday.
The city won its negligence lawsuit against ExxonMobil, accusing the oil giant of contaminating city-owned wells in St. Albans during the 1980s and ’90s. A Manhattan federal court jury decided the oil company was responsible for some of the approximately $250 million in damages done to the wells that are owned by the city Department of Environmental Protection.
“It is a substantial award, a very significant victory for the city. It sends a clear message to the polluters to make sure their products don’t end up in drinking water,” said Vic Sher, a San Francisco-based environmental lawyer who was hired by the city for the case.
Peter John Sacripanti, the attorney for ExxonMobil, did not return a phone call before press time Tuesday afternoon.
ExxonMobil used methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, in its oil products during the ’80s and ’90s as an unleaded gasoline additive, according to the city. Studies have shown that the chemical, if mixed with water, could cause cancer if exposed to skin.
In 1996, the DEP purchased 70 wells in southeast Queens from the Jamaica Water Co. so it would provide New Yorkers with drinking water in case of a drought, the city said. The wells were connected to the Queens aquifer, a waterbed located underneath the ground in southeast Queens.
The DEP halted its plans for the wells when it discovered some of the wells were contaminated with MTBE during a feasibility study of the aquifer.
The city filed a lawsuit against several oil companies in 2007 that sought damages for the pollution and all but ExxonMobil settled, according to Sher. During the 11-week trial, Sher provided the jury with various pieces of evidence that showed the oil company knew MTBE posed an environmental risk but continued to use it.
After a week of deliberating, the jury found ExxonMobil was responsible for paying $104.7 million out of the $250.5 million treatment facilities the city would have to build to clean the water. The other oil companies that were named in the initial lawsuit paid the city some $15 million combined as part of their settlements, according to Sher.
The jury stated in its decision that $70 million of the $250.5 million in damages was caused by other forms of contamination.
City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) praised the jury’s decision and urged the city to use the money as soon as it can to clean the waterbed. Since the pumps have not been used in more than a dozen years, the water level in southeast Queens is high and leads to constant street flooding, according to the councilman.
“The treatment for the water needs to be done so that we can get the water table lowered,” he said.
Although the city has passed a major hurdle in its plans to open the southeast Queens wells, it will take several years before the they are in full, clean operation, Sher said. The wells are slated to start pumping water in 2016 under the city’s current budget, and the amount of MTBE will take a long time to clean, according to Sher.
“Once the treatment facilities are built, it will be many decades before the contamination is gone,” the attorney said.
Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@c
©2009 Community News Group
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