Vermont is suing more than two dozen oil companies to recover the ongoing costs to clean up preventable groundwater contamination.

Among the companies the state is suing are BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Shell. The state alleges that these companies used the toxic gasoline additive, MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether), knowing that it "posed a devastating risk" to the state's water supplies.

"We believe these companies knew years ago that MTBE was a uniquely bad actor in groundwater, and they ignored the risks and sold it anyway," said Attorney General Bill Sorrell in a statement last week. "This lawsuit is about holding them accountable and ensuring that they - and not Vermonters - pay to clean up our groundwater."

MTBE quickly spreads through groundwater when it spills or leaks from underground tanks. The gasoline additive is now banned in Vermont. Nonetheless, the state continues to clean up and find wells contaminated decades ago.

Chuck Schwer, site cleanup program manager for the Department of Environmental Conservation, said in an interview the state has cleaned up more than 2,000 leaks. More than three-quarters of these leaks contained MTBE, he said. In the past six years, Schwer said the state has paid $24 million to clean this up.

"As long as we we're aware of the problem, our program has been very proactive," he said. This includes installing charcoal filtration systems and providing bottled water to residents.


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One of the worst cases was a 1992 tank leak in Killington that contaminated over 40 wells. The state is still paying to treat the groundwater and provide bottled water.