CONCORD, N.H. — Nearly a decade after it was first brought, a lawsuit accusing two oil giants of widespread groundwater contamination in New Hampshire is expected to present jurors with the most complex and time-consuming trial in state history.
The products liability case against ExxonMobil and Citgo will be tried beginning in mid-January in a federal courtroom – on loan to the state – because it would undermine the rights of criminal defendants to a speedy trial if it tied up one of the three courtrooms in Merrimack Superior Court, officials said.
The state sued 26 oil companies and subsidiaries in 2003, claiming the gasoline additive MTBE, methyl tertiary butyl ether, caused groundwater contamination in a state where 60 percent of the population relies on private wells for drinking water.
New Hampshire is seeking more than $700 million in damages to test and monitor every private well and public drinking water system in the state and to cover cleanup costs where needed, according to court documents.
New Hampshire is the only state to have reached the trial stage in a lawsuit over MTBE.
Other lawsuits have been brought by municipalities, water districts or individual well owners, and most filed in the past decade have ended in settlements. New York City in 2009 won a $105 million federal jury verdict against ExxonMobil for MTBE contamination of city wells; that verdict has been appealed.
MTBE had been used in gasoline since the 1970s to increase octane and reduce smog-causing emissions. While it was credited with cutting air pollution, it was found in the late 1990s to contaminate drinking water when gasoline is spilled or leaks into surface or groundwater.