Big Win for Pascoag; Drop in Bucket for Big Oil

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A victory was claimed today for the once and current residents of Pascoag village in the town of Burrillville. After nearly 10 years of litigation, lawyers for the residents and the Pascoag Utility District (PUD) garnered a $7 million settlement from the Exxon/Mobil Corp. for the now banned in Rhode Island methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) contamination that tainted the town’s well water during the summer and early autumn of 2001.

The plume originated from a severely compromised underground storage tank at the former Main Street Mobil gas station. The tanks were subsequently removed, and the gas station collapsed under the weight of the snow last winter.

Superior Court Judge Judith Colenback Savage’s lengthy decision downplayed the physical health impacts of the gas additive plume on the public in Pascoag, saying that, “The testimony in the case provided no evidence of a causal link between the MTBE contamination and any health effects.” She also addressed concerns from the class-action claimants about the compensation of the plaintiffs lawyers by reorganizing the payment schedule to require that the "more organized Pascoag Utility District take on the lion’s share of the legal fees.”

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.

Also, in response to the minority of the class-action claimants concerns about the percentage of the settlement paid out in legal fees, attorneys Brian Cunha, William Bernstein, Paul Napoli and Mark Bern agreed to knock another $100,000 off their fees. Of that $100,000, the judge decreed that claimant Craig Waltz be given $35,000 due to the extreme way that the MTBE plume affected his home, property and family, and the remaining $65,000 be distributed to the other claimants. She also decreed that an additional $7,500 be paid to each of the five major claimants in the case, totaling $37,500.

Savage also declined, without prejudice, the reimbursement of just over $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 the reimbursement if more accurate records were submitted.

“It’s been a long battle, and we were up against a lot of money and lawyers, but in the end, we got some justice for the people of Pascoag," Napoli said.

While this is a victory for the village of Pascoag, it’s important to note that the Exxon/Mobil earned more than $40billionin profits in 2007 alone, so today’s $7 million settlement will not bankrupt the company. Although if not for an influx of cash from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the initial MTBE event would have nearly bankrupted the state Department of Environmental Management’s Underground Storage Tank Program. It also is important to note that the agreed upon settlement should not be construed as an admission of guilt.

Savage closed her decision by saying, "This is the end of a long and difficult chapter in the lives of the people of Pascoag."