CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A lawyer says research done by one of two major oil companies on trial in New Hampshire concluded decades ago that the additive MTBE should not be added to gasoline because it could create widespread groundwater contamination that would be costly to clean up.
The state launched its case against ExxonMobil and Citgo on Monday, seeking more than $700 million fees to monitor and treat contaminated water systems statewide.
Lawyers for the oil companies were to present their opening statements Monday afternoon. They have argued in court documents and during pretrial hearings that their clients have cleaned up their own sites and that contamination elsewhere was caused by third parties not named in the suit.
Attorney Jessica Grant, representing the state, displayed to jurors a 1984 ExxonMobil memo in which high-level employees recommended against using MTBE due to environmental concerns.
"A significant part of the state's case will be presented from the defendants' own documents," Grant said, showing jurors multiple ExxonMobil memos counseling against its use or warning of the staggering cost of remediation if it was used.
The lawsuit — filed in 2003 — is the only one brought by a state to reach trial on the issue of MTBE groundwater contamination. Most of the other MTBE cases nationwide were brought by municipalities, water districts or individual well owners, and all but one was settled or dismissed.
The trial is expected to last four months. Judge Peter Fauver on Monday thanked jurors for their service and acknowledged the trial would be "an imposition on your lives."
It is being held in a federal courtroom on loan to the state so as not to monopolize one of three courtrooms at Merrimack Superior Court. That courtroom was packed Monday with lawyers, paralegals and technical support staff.
More than 50,000 exhibits have been marked and the witness list numbers 230.
It was clear from a pretrial conference Friday and Grant's opening statement Monday that jurors will be confronted with an alphabet soup of acronyms for various funds and agencies, will have to grapple with complex statistical analyses and will hear contradictory testimony by expert witnesses.
MTBE had been used in gasoline since the 1970s to increase octane and reduce smog-causing emissions. While it was credited with cutting air pollution, it was found in the late 1990s to contaminate drinking water when gasoline is spilled or leaks into surface or groundwater. New Hampshire banned its use in 2007.
"MTBE is a toxic chemical that does not belong in the state's drinking water," Grant said. She told jurors that the state's experts estimate more than 40,000 wells in New Hampshire are probably contaminated by MTBE. She said MTBE is highly soluble and resistant to biodegradation. Ten gallons of gasoline treated with MTBE, Grant said, could contaminate 62 million gallons of water — the amount estimated to make up Echo Lake in Conway, N.H.
Roughly 60 percent of New Hampshire's population gets its drinking water from wells, which drives up the estimated cost to test and treat contaminated water sources.