PROVIDENCE—Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin is taking big oil to task, filing suit on Tuesday against over 30 companies for using an additive to increase oxygen levels in gasoline. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court, alleges that the companies ‘willfully promoted’ product containing Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE), which poses risk to the environment and human health if exposed to groundwater. 

Kilmartin wants the companies, including Exxon-Mobil, Shell, and British Petroleum, to pay for the cleanup of leaked MTBEs in Rhode Island, a process which the attorney general’s office says has cost $65 million to date.

Other oil companies named in the suit include Sunoco, Citgo, and Valero, all of which operate locations throughout Rhode Island.

“The state has incurred significant costs to remove MTBE from sites where it has leaked into soils and groundwater,” said Kilmartin in a statement Tuesday. “[Those] costs should not be borne by the state or taxpayers, but the companies who knew that their product would cause this contamination.”

The use of MTBE, which can create a strong, turpentine-like taste and odor in drinking water, was banned by Rhode Island in 2007, but cleaning the less-soluble additive from soils remains a difficult venture.

“[MTBEs] make the water undrinkable, and produce an extraordinarily offensive taste and smell in very little concentrations,” said assistant attorney general Michael Rubin. “It is unsuitable for even washing a pet.”

In 2001, MTBE contamination of groundwater in Pascoag forced the state to shut down that area’s lone drinking water well, leading to an eventual $7 million settlement between the town, the state, and Exxon-Mobil in 2012.

The state has also remediated MTBE contamination in Tiverton and at the Mobil station at the intersection of Route 1 and 138 in South Kingstown.

“Although it is no longer in use, the effects [of MTBEs] on our environment persist,” said Janet Coit, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. “It is time the companies responsible for adding this compound to gasoline are held accountable for the costs of cleanup.”

Kilmartin spokesperson Amy Kempe estimated on Tuesday up to approximately 6,300 gasoline tanks are stored underground at stations throughout Rhode Island, with 1,100 already identified as susceptible to MTBE contamination. Kempe cautioned, however, that no leaks in recent years have been reported.

Rubin admitted that no official scientific link has yet been connected between the presence of MTBEs in groundwater and health conditions such as cancer, but said the risk is a ‘probable’ one.

“Attorney General Kilmartin is concerned about the possibility of bad health effects,” he said on Tuesday. “These health effects are suspected, and he doesn’t want the people of Rhode Island to be guinea pigs.”

Rubin added on Tuesday that the suit was still being delivered to defendants. Once received, the companies named in the lawsuit will have 60 days to respond.

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