The longest state trial in New Hampshire history ended Tuesday with a jury verdict against Exxon Mobil Corp. for its role in polluting groundwater with MTBE, a gasoline additive. The jury ordered the oil giant to pay the state $236 million, the amount New Hampshire officials sought to clean up and monitor the groundwater contamination.
According to the Associated Press, the jury returned its verdict in less than 90 minutes, after listening to nearly three months of testimony.
Exxon Mobil began adding MTBE to its gasoline in the 1990s in order to reduce smog levels and meet federal Clean Air mandates calling for a reduction in air pollution. But the chemical designed to spare the state’s air apparently contaminated the ground instead. When leaked, it travels through the ground faster and farther than gasoline without the additive, making it much more difficult to clean up.
“Jurors found that Exxon Mobil was negligent in adding MTBE to its gasoline and that it was a defective product,” the AP reported. “They also found Exxon Mobil liable for failing to warn distributors and consumers about its contaminating characteristics.” The jury also determined that New Hampshire officials were not made fully aware of the chemical’s risks when it opted into a program in 1991 to reformulate gasoline with MTBE.
The litigation is the result not of one large spill but the discovery of MTBE groundwater contamination in hundreds and possibly thousands of sites throughout the state. New Hampshire officials say that more than 600 wells in the state are known to be contaminated with MTBE, but an expert witness for the prosecution testified that the number could exceed 5,000.
Exxon Mobil essentially argued that it shouldn’t be held liable for how individuals and businesses handle the highly toxic fuel.
New Hampshire began suing over MTBE contamination in 2003. Of 26 defendants, Exxon Mobil and Citgo were the only ones left when the trial opened in January. Citgo negotiated a settlement for $16 million and withdrew from the trial. Before Tuesday’s verdict, New Hampshire collected $136 million in settlements and judgments involving MTBE groundwater contamination.