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One of the largest suppliers of drinking water on Long Island, N.Y. filed suit against Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil Corp. for water contamination by the controversial MTBE gasoline additive that was first used to help the environment.
The Plainview Water District, which provides drinking water to 35,000 residents, said the MTBE has not yet spread from the groundwater to its 11 drinking wells. But it alleges that ExxonMobil, the world's largest oil company, has known about the spill and done nothing to prevent it from spreading, Reuters reported.
The water district is seeking $2 billion in punitive damages and $500 million in compensatory damages for a gasoline spill at a now-closed Mobil station in Plainview, according to papers filed in New York State Supreme Court in Nassau County.
Exxon Mobil says the company is working with the proper regulatory agency, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), to clean the spill.
"Exxon Mobil has certainly taken a very proactive approach in addressing this site -- even after it ceased operation. And we continue to take an active role in meeting our environmental responsibilities," ExxonMobil spokesman Barry Wood said.
MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, has been a prickly issue for oil companies since its use mushroomed with the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1990. The additive helps gasoline to burn more cleanly but has a chemical affinity for water, takes longer to break down than other petroleum products and is listed as a possible carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency.
But MTBE is an economically desirable component used in reformulated gasoline, the grade required in a third of nation's pumps. Most of the U.S. Northeast is legally bound to use reformulated gasoline with an additive.
New York state has 200,000 known spills of MTBE, according to Walter Hang, president of the environmental database firm Toxics Targeting Inc. which is aiding the water district. New York has banned the use of MTBE by 2004. California, Connecticut, and New Hampshire have also taken steps to phase out its use.