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SACRAMENTO � Chevron Corp. on Friday pumped $500,000 into an initiative campaign to curb punitive damages in California, boosting the refiner’s total contributions to $1.5 million over the last six weeks. The donations make San Ramon-based Chevron the largest donor by far to Californians for Sensible Lawsuit Reform, the committee financing efforts to put the measure on the November ballot. The initiative would shield manufacturers � in pending as well as future cases � from punitive damages if their products complied with applicable state and federal rules. Chevron and other oil companies have paid millions of dollars to settle claims by water agencies and property owners over the last decade after the fuel additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether, better known as MTBE, leaked from storage tanks and contaminated underground water supplies. Another 200 lawsuits have been consolidated into one case now before a federal court judge in New York. Refiners have contended that they added MTBE to their supplies with the blessing of air pollution regulators, who were seeking a cleaner-burning gasoline. “Like a number of different industries, they have had problems with this kind of lawsuit, where punitive damages have been awarded even though they’ve complied with state and federal regulations,” said John Sullivan, president of the initiative’s sponsor, the Civil Justice Association of California. Chevron, Exxon, Shell and other defendants in 2003 paid $120 million to settle a lawsuit brought after MTBE contaminated a groundwater basin serving the city of Santa Monica. The companies also built a water treatment system for the region that was recently appraised at $125 million, according to the plaintiff’s lawyer. Messages left at Chevron’s media relations department on Monday were not returned. The U.S. House of Representatives tried twice in 2003 and 2005 to include language in a national energy bill that would have immunized oil producers from MTBE cleanup costs. The U.S. Senate stripped the provisions both times. “I think what Chevron is clearly trying to do is what it couldn’t get done in Congress,” said Victor Sher, who represented plaintiffs in both the Santa Monica settlement and a $69 million deal benefiting a South Lake Tahoe utility with MTBE contamination. “It’s just an attempt at an end run around the court system and the jury system,” Sher said. The proposed initiative does not seek protections for any specified industry, including gasoline manufacturers. Pharmaceutical companies and car makers would also benefit, Sullivan said, although the sponsor wouldn’t say what other corporations, if any, have contributed to the initiative campaign. “We have a lot of interest,” Sullivan said. “A lot of people are taking a look at this to see where it fits in among their priorities.” The only other contribution reported by initiative supporters through Monday was $5,000 from the California Business Roundtable. Supporters must collect almost 374,000 valid signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot. Sullivan said he hopes to submit petitions to the state next month.

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