Jan 12, 2004

Indiana School District Sues Over MTBE-tainted Water

A lawsuit over the presence of the gasoline additive MTBE in an elementary school's water system has become wrapped up with national energy policy.

U.S. District Judge Allen Sharp last week put the North Newton School Board's lawsuit on hold until a judicial panel decides whether it should be consolidated with similar lawsuits and transferred out of his federal court in Lafayette.

The school district is suing 41 oil companies over contaminated water at Lincoln Elementary School in Roselawn – about 30 miles south of Gary. The lawsuit was filed in Newton County Court in November and was transferred to federal court last month.

For over two years, more than 450 students at the school drank and used water contaminated with MTBE, the gasoline additive that was used to replace lead. It is not known whether the water was contaminated before 2000, because the school did not test for the additive until March 2000.

MTBE is a carcinogen in animals and a possible human carcinogen, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The energy bill debated last year in Congress would have protected manufacturers of the additive from product liability lawsuits stemming from contamination of drinking water supplies. Such contamination has been found in at least 28 states and potential cleanup costs have been put as high as $29 billion.

The bill stalled in the last days of last year's session, in part because of the controversy over the MTBE provision. But several plaintiffs – including the North Newton school district – rushed to court to file lawsuits in case the bill was passed.

The North Newton lawsuit does not specify damages. School district attorney Dan Blaney said that officials are not sure how much the cleanup may cost. Previous estimates placed the cost at as much as $1.5 million.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management had a water filter system installed for the school, but it has to be frequently tested, Blaney said. MTBE is more difficult to remove from groundwater than other petrochemicals, and it takes longer to break down.