Essential Action

View the Extended News Release

October 14, 2003

Dear Senator:

We, the undersigned, strongly urge you to do everything in your power, including filibuster if necessary, to stop an energy bill conference report that includes a provision that would shield oil and chemical companies from liability for contaminating drinking water across the country with the gas additive MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether).

MTBE producers and refiners had extensive knowledge of the toxicity and mobility of MTBE in groundwater yet voluntarily used it as an additive in conventional and reformulated gasoline for decades without alerting their customers, the public, or Congress of the potential hazards. Granting corporate polluters protection from legal claims that past and future MTBE use creates a fuel that is "defective in design or manufacture" poses unprecedented environmental and public health risks because it eliminates a key legal theory requiring cleanup of MTBE contamination. Defective product claims should be fairly decided by courts, not exempted by Congress to protect special interests. Local taxpayers and drinking water ratepayers should not have to bear financial responsibility for cleaning up MTBE problems that they did not cause. According to a September 2003 Zogby poll, Americans believe, by a margin of 86-8%, that oil and chemical companies should be held responsible for paying to cleanup their MTBE contamination.

Known and Potential MTBE Hazards

MTBE is a toxic and highly persistent chemical that has been added to gasoline since the late 1970s. U.S. Geological Survey experts estimate that there may be 250,000 leaking underground storage tank releases of MTBE. Pipeline releases, gas spills, and other sources also contaminate groundwater and surface water with MTBE. MTBE spreads rapidly in water and often pollutes nearby properties or water supply wells.

MTBE poses a serious threat to the underground aquifers that supply half of the nation’s drinking water. A July 2003 U.S. Geological Survey found MTBE in 86% of wells sampled in industrial areas nationwide, 31% in commercial areas, 23% in residential areas, and 23% in areas with mixed urban land use, parks, and recreation areas. In March of 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stated, "The use of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) in our nation’s fuel supply has created a significant and unacceptable risk to drinking water and ground water resources."

Enormous MTBE Cleanup Costs

The estimated cost of cleaning up MTBE contamination nationwide is $30 billion and growing. Supply wells or reservoirs polluted with MTBE can require treatment systems that cost millions of dollars in capital construction costs and tens of millions of dollars in long-term operation and maintenance costs. Cleaning up one gas station’s MTBE problems can cost more than a million dollars. It would be an enormous financial burden for affected communities to bear these costs. Polluters, not taxpayers or the victims of pollution, should pay for the damages caused by their products.

We strongly urge you to use every tool at your disposal to ensure that the oil and chemical industries remain fully liable for contaminating the nation’s water supply with MTBE.


U.S. Public Interest Research Group

Resource Conservation Alliance

American Lung Association

Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)

Center for Auto Safety

Center for Food Safety

Center for Health, Environment and Justice

Center for Justice and Democracy

Clean Water Action Project

Consumer Federation of America

Consumers Union

Defenders of Wildlife

Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund

Essential Information

Environmental & Energy Study Institute

Environmental Defense

Environmental Working Group

Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights

Friends of the Earth


International Center for Technology Assessment

League of Conservation Voters

Natural Resources Defense Council

Physicians for Social Responsibility

Public Citizen

Sierra Club

Union of Concerned Scientists