'It Burns When I Shower'

Editor's note: Ten years ago this month, the water supply in the village of Pascoag, in the town of Burrillville, was contaminated by the now-banned gasoline additive methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE). MTBE is a petroleum byproduct that replaced lead in gasoline as an oxygenating agent. Many gasoline companies termed it an “anti-knocking agent.” The petrochemical has been shown to cause cancer in rodents. As of 2007, it had been banned — partially or fully — in 24 states, including Rhode Island.

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

PASCOAG, R.I. — Citing a lack of a causal link between MTBE groundwater contamination and any human health impacts in her decision, Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Judith Colenback Savage dismissed any injury claims made by claimants in the recently settled class-action lawsuit concerning the now decade-old MTBE spill. While true that there has been no scientific evidence of MTBE’s effect on humans when infiltrated into groundwater, that’s a hard sell to local residents.

According to a 2006 report by the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) following the detection of MTBE in the drinking water in 2001, some local residents complained of massive headaches, vomiting, wheezing and blisters on their lips.

And if you ask 29-year Pascoag resident Janice Kaplan, she’d add chronic ear, throat and lung infections, chemical burns, elevated liver function and hair loss in animals to that list — not to mention the mental and emotional stress that being without potable water puts on a family. When asked how she felt about Judge Savage’s downplaying of the physical effects of the contamination, she said, rather nonplussed, “To be perfectly frank, it was downplayed by (then) Governor Almond.” Kaplan believes the contamination started much earlier than August 2001.

As with most things in life, timing is key, and the MTBE spill in Pascoag, from a relief-effort perspective, got drowned out by another problem just eight days later in New York City. “For the first week, we were getting help from the Red Cross, but after 9/11, all of those resources were sent to New York City,” Kaplan said. “It was sheer chaos at the beginning. Nobody understood just how dangerous MTBE was.”

Initially, Kaplan and her late husband sent their two then-teenage daughters out of town.

The couple attacked the problem head-on, winterizing a 24-foot trailer on their property in which to bathe and cook. The water tank on the trailer held 50 gallons, which, for a household of four, really isn’t a lot of water. So little, in fact, that Kaplan insists that, “My husband never took a shower in the trailer. After three women got ready for their days, there wasn’t much left of that 50 gallons.”

Her husband would shower at the town’s hockey rink, along with many other Pascoag residents.

During the four months that the Pascoag wells were contaminated, but still in use for bathing and laundry, Kaplan and her family made repeated trips to the doctor. The family seemed to be caught in a revolving door of ear, throat and lung infections, as well as experiencing rashes and chemical burns just from contact with the water. At the time, her oldest daughter also was suffering from extremely elevated — to the tune of four times higher than normal — liver function. “Everybody around you was sick or hospitalized,” Kaplan said.

These illnesses, coupled with loss of income from work missed either due to sickness or from dealing with her children’s illnesses, and for her husband the everyday rigmarole of hauling water back and forth to the trailer and showering at the rink put a tremendous strain on the family.

“I had gotten into the habit of running the dishwasher at night, when we were all in bed,” Kaplan said. “It never occurred to me that the dog’s favorite place to sleep was just a few feet from the dishwasher.”

Long story, short: the dog went bald. “In all honesty, I probably spent more on the dog’s medical bills than I did on the family’s, after insurance," she said.

Through all of this, Kaplan said she made several calls to the Pascoag Utility District and the state Department of Health (DOH), but the DOH has insisted that most of the complaints it received during the incident were about skin rashes and complaints over the inconvenience of not having potable water.

Sadly, just two years after the gasoline spill, Kaplan's husband, Russell St. Ours, died from a series of bronchial infections exacerbated by a manifested case of asthma. “I know that there’s no scientific link, but there’s no question in my mind that this spill, and the stresses my husband endured because of it, caused his death,” Kaplan said. “And there isn’t a parent in Pascoag that isn’t scared that their children are now more prone to cancer.”

And what does the recent settlement mean for the once and current customers of the Pascoag Utility District? For four months without potable water, and 10 years of legal wrangling, during which time PUD customers have paid no less than double the rate of other public water users in Rhode Island, each of the some 2,000 claimants will receive a little more than $800. Kaplan, as a major claimant in the case, will net an additional $7,500, but that still won’t even cover the money she’s spent fighting Big Oil.

“It’s clearly not the money,” she said, “it’s the principle.”