U.S. District Judge Josephine Staton Tucker signed off on settlements for four of the seven as of last month. The other three have filed settlement documents with the court but they have yet to be approved by the judge.
Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, BP, Lyondell Chemical, Shell, Valero and Chevron — have submitted settlements, a Sept. 10 jury trial has been suspended, said Tom Bunn, the water district’s attorney.
The final settlement total is less than half of the roughly $50 million the district asked for when it sued the companies.
Exxon Mobil: $4.5 million
ConocoPhillips: $4 million
BP: $4 million
Lyondell Chemical: $700,000
Valero: $3.85 million
Shell: $4.5 million
Chevron: $1.1 million
District officials first detected the gasoline additive Methyl Tertiary-butyl Ether in the ground near several gas stations along Foothill Boulevard, as well as in well water, in 2004. District officials then shut down two wells after MTBE levels exceeded the state contaminant limit of 5 parts per billion and reached, at points, beyond 50 parts per billion. Once the MTBE levels dropped, the wells returned to service without any treatment, according to court records.
Water contaminated by MTBE has a foul taste and odor. While the health hazards of low doses of the additive are unknown, in high quantities it’s a potential carcinogen, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. MTBE was used to oxygenate gasoline.
Despite the MTBE detection, district officials have said the water distributed to their 8,000 customers is safe to drink. As of January 2012, the district had spent more than $5 million on the MTBE issue, including paying for imported water to replace the tainted supplies. An engineering expert hired by the district estimated that installing and operating filters to strip MTBE from the groundwater would cost about $47 million.
The district argued in court documents that while MTBE levels have fallen over time and are now below state limits, they could rise again as the plume of the contaminant shifts beneath the ground. But the gas companies claimed that the district’s assumptions about future contamination levels were flawed.
“The parties agree that in light of the expenses of future litigation, the uncertainty of any possible verdict, and any appeals which might have been successful if pursued, the amount of monies paid should not be construed as anything other than the compromise of disputed liability,” according to the settlement reached with Valero and filed with the court Thursday.
The other settlements express similar sentiments. While most agreed to fork over about $4 million each, Lyondell Chemical is set to pay just $700,000.
According to its settlement agreement, Lyondell never operated any gasoline stations or storage facilities near the district’s wells and merely sold MTBE to refiners and oil companies.
“There is no evidence to suggest that MTBE manufactured by Lyondell has ever reached or threatened to reach any of [the district’s] drinking water wells or groundwater,” their settlement states.
Bunn, the water district’s attorney, said he could not expand on the latest developments due to agreements with the oil and chemical companies.
It could take a few months before the remaining three settlements are signed by a judge.