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The plaintiffs were seeking millions, but agreed to take $35,000 in what attorneys believe is the first nationwide settlement of litigation involving the gasoline additive MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether. The manufacturer of the chemical, Lyondell Chemical Co., paid nothing, arguing that those responsible for leaking MTBE should pay for testing and cleanup. The settlement in Millett v. Atlantic Richfield Co., No. CV98-555 (Cumberland Co., Maine, Super. Ct.) comes after a judge denied the suit class-action status last March. “This case started out with people asking for eight to 10 figures,” said Joseph F. Speelman, associate general Counsel of Houston-based Lyondell. “And we paid nothing because we weren’t responsible. … It made the point we’ve been trying to make all along.” Federally mandated in many areas of the United States to reduce pollution, MTBE can help gasoline burn more efficiently. But the chemical compound is 28 times more soluble than gasoline and therefore seeps into drinking water much more easily, said the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Jon Hinck of Lewis Saul & Associates in Portland, Maine. The plaintiffs in Millett were seeking mandatory warnings, funding for public education, well-water testing and remediation, as well as compensation for property loss and punitive damages. MTBE IN WELL WATER Five representative plaintiffs brought the case individually after Maine Superior Court Justice Roland Cole declined to certify the class. Michael A. Millet sued after alleged MTBE contamination was discovered in his well water following an accident in front of his home, in which a car overturned. An environmental report later concluded that the auto accident was the likely source of contamination. Although Millett didn’t sue the car’s driver, Wayne M. Conlan, the defendants brought him into the action as a third-party defendant. Conlan’s insurer, the Commercial Union Insurance Co. contributed $25,000 toward the settlement. A Los Angeles oil refiner, Atlantic Richfield Co., contributed $10,000. Millett was awarded $22,000 in the recent settlement. Plaintiffs Cathy and Richard Lemar, who learned that their well was contaminated with MTBE after the state conducted some random testing, were awarded $10,000. The source of the contamination to the Lemars’ well is unknown, Hinck said. Plaintiffs Victoria Emmons and Monique Leamon, who each owned wells that had never been tested for MTBE, were awarded $1,500 each. Defendants American Petroleum Institute and the Oxygenated Fuels Association didn’t contribute to the settlement. The defendants agreed to settle provided the terms be made public, said the defendants’ lead counsel, Alan J. Hoffman of Philadelphia’s Blank Rome Comisky & McCauley. “Generally, the defendants want confidentiality,” he said. “Here, the plaintiffs wanted confidentiality. “Our position has been that if you’re responsible for leaking the product … you pay to clean it up,” he said. In Millett, the plaintiffs didn’t even bother to sue Conlan, he added. But Hinck said that he disagrees with what he sees as the defendants’ attempt to portray the industry as having gotten off scot-free. “We reached a lump sum with the defendants. The fact that they were able to get insurance money was up to them,” he said. MTBE is a bigger problem than most drivers could foresee, Hinck said. He estimates that Conlan’s accident resulted in eight or 10 gallons of gasoline spilling onto the ground. Yet, in addition to Millett’s well, at least a dozen others in the neighborhood were found to be contaminated with MTBE, with the accident as the likely source, he said. “What that tells you about MTBE is pretty remarkable,” Hinck said. “Before MTBE, if eight or 10 gallons of gasoline had leaked, it would affect no one.” Not only is MTBE more soluble than gasoline or anything else added to gas, but it isn’t biodegradable, he said. “We think the real mistake here is adding MTBE to gasoline,” he said. The debate is unlikely to be over in Maine. There are 249,000 well owners in the state who have never had their wells tested for MTBE, said Hinck. “We would like to bring an action that would help the residents … who are now drinking MTBE in their well water and don’t know about it.” Lyondell, one of several MTBE manufacturers, is facing five more lawsuits over the additive in California, Hoffman said

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