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Published: Friday, May 09, 2008

Vineland to get $10M. in settlement of suit

By JULIET FLETCHERM
Staff Writer, 856-237-9020

VINELAND - After four years of class-action legal battles in utmost secrecy, the city has learned it will receive more than $10 million in settlement damages from oil companies accused of polluting local water sources, a city lawyer said Thursday.

In 2004, Vineland joined a class-action lawsuit against companies who used the additive MTBE to oxygenate fuel.

In cases across the country, the additive, which federal regulators have said is a possible carcinogen at high doses, has shown up in groundwater.

City Solicitor Rick Tonetta revealed at Thursday's City Council work session that a number of the companies named as defendants in the suit had agreed to settle.
The award totaled $15,237,150.57.

After costs and fees are deducted, the total is $10,062,912.34, he said.

The award is the first reported by one of several New Jersey municipalities involved in the action, which was led in the state by Princeton-based environmental attorneys Lieberman & Blecher. Nationally, the partial settlements in 19 states could cost major oil companies, such as Chevron and BP, a reported $423 million.

Tonetta said he made the news public following a deadline that expired Wednesday, ending an opt-out period for settling defendants.

While MTBE, or methyl tertiary-butyl ether, was used to raise the oxygen levels in gasoline, reducing tailpipe emissions in pre-1984 vehicles, Tonetta said the additive has been found to spread quickly and thinly through groundwater. If gas containers or tanks leaked, he said, the chemical could make its way into aquifers.

He stressed that Vineland's water wells have been updated with "scrubber" processes in the last decade to ensure traces of the chemical have been removed.

Recalling the data he compiled for the case with John Snidenbach, superintendent of the city's water utility, Tonetta said, "I don't believe the levels (of MTBE) in our water system did reach a level of concern."

"However," he added, "they did cause a smell and a taste."

City Council President John Barretta praised Tonetta and other city legal staff for the choice to join the suit. "It was a wise decision," he said.

Council members will consider a resolution to accept the partial settlement and payment at the next meeting.

Meanwhile, 30 percent of the named defendants in the suit have not settled and will likely take the case to court, Tonetta said.

That may spell a holdup for Vineland in receiving the awarded money. Among the companies holding out is gas giant Exxon.

"In court, they may argue the award is unfair to them, as nonsettling defendants," Tonetta said.

To e-mail Juliet Fletcher at The Press: [email protected]