Judge Again Defers Pascoag's MTBE Settlement

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

PASCOAG, R.I. — Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Judith Colenback Savage last week again deferred the $7 million settlement in the case regarding the now-decade-old methyl tertiary butyl-ether (MTBE) spill in the village of Pascoag.

MTBE is a gasoline additive that has since been banned in many states, including Rhode Island. The spill contaminated the town’s water supply, and forced the Pascoag Utility District (PUD) into an agreement with the neighboring village of Harrisville to buy drinking water at nearly double the rate that most Rhode Islanders pay for their public water. Many then and current residents of the village believe the contamination led to a rash of what one resident called “oddball cancers” and multiple sclerosis.

In Savage’s initial decision — recorded in July 2011 — she declined reimbursement of just more than $900,000 in attorney expenses by Exxon/Mobil, indicating that the breakdown of expenses was far too vague to satisfy the court, but would reconsider reimbursement if more accurate records were submitted. Those records were submitted to the court, but the judge deemed them still too vague and disorganized to warrant reimbursement. Michael Kirkwood, current head of the PUD, said Savage seemed “really aggravated” that attorneys involved in the case delivered several boxes of unreferenced and unorganized expense reports to the court.

Savage has since appointed Bruce Kogan, a law professor from Roger Williams University, to wade through the boxes of expense reports and determine which were legitimate expenses eligible for reimbursement and which were not. Kogan’s report is due March 9. The judge is expected to render her final decision March 30, which should put the wheels of the settlement payment in motion.

The settlement will be divided into a $5 million portion for the Pascoag Utility District to remediate the bedrock aquifer that was contaminated and improve the quality of drinking water in the village. A $2 million portion will be distributed amongst the some 2,000 claimants in the case. Legal fees in the case amounted to $2.3 million, two-thirds of which will be paid out of the PUD settlement and the remaining $666,667 paid from the claimants’ payout.

Potential site for new well
In other news regarding the water supply in Pascoag, Kirkwood said the PUD has determined a potential site where a new public well could be drilled. The area in the northern part of the same wellfield that was contaminated back in 2001 seems to draw water from the aquifer of a nearby stream that empties into the Pascoag reservoir rather than from the contaminated aquifer.

The site actually had a functioning well in the past, but was closed by the state Department of Health about 30 years ago because of high levels of iron and manganese in the groundwater.

"Thirty years ago the technology didn’t exist to effectively reduce the level of metals coming out of the well,” Kirkwood said. "But today’s filtering technology can easily reduce those metals to within a consumable range.”

Kirkwood remains cautiously optimistic about the new well site and insists that the PUD is taking a “slow and very studied approach to any new well sites.” Any major exploration or drilling of new wells would have to wait until the PUD receives its $5 miillion settlement agreement.

The state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) continues to monitor the MTBE-contaminated aquifer, and the latest round of testing showed that MTBE levels have dropped slighty from a high of 1,700 part per billion — 42 times the EPA limit for drinking water. But the Department of Health maintains that well 3A will remain closed not because of the current levels of contamination, but due to the potential for future contamination at the site.