Monday, November 17, 2003

Terminating Pollution Lawsuits

Those of you who used to be fans of Terminator movies (when that was not politically incorrect) remember that the plot involved sending a "terminator" back through history to eliminate the leader of the rebellion against the ruling machines.

Republicans in Congress seem to have taken that plot line to heart. A little noticed item in the energy bill that has emerged from a House-Senate conference committee contains a little item that attempts to change history:
In a decision that surprised advocacy groups following the measure, a provision protecting producers of a gasoline additive blamed for groundwater contamination was made retroactive to Sept. 5, potentially disrupting a number of actions to recoup cleanup costs that have been filed since then in New York, California, New Hampshire and elsewhere.

Robert Gordon, a Manhattan lawyer who has filed some of the cases involving the additive, MTBE, said the bill neutralized the kind of product-defect claim that has been the most successful argument used against the producers. He said he and others were stunned by the Sept. 5 date, saying it would throw into question lawsuits he has filed since then on behalf of 100 local governments and water companies seeking cleanup money.
Never let it be said, however, that Republican members of Congress aren't looking out for the downtrodden and abused of our society. Petroleum companies are complaining that they started using MTBE "because the federal government promoted the additive as a fuel oxygenate to ease air pollution," and therefore the government should assist them in making the transition away from MTBE. OK, maybe that makes some sense. But like the little piggies that they are, MTBE producers argued that if a little assistance is good, more must be better.
In protecting manufacturers of MTBE, the bill also grants them a possible $2 billion in transition aid to switch from MTBE, an increase over the $800 million they were expected to get. The substance could remain in use until 2015, when it would be banned unless the president intervened.
And who are the backers of these provisions? One guess. Right!
The provisions for MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, were promoted by Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, the House majority leader, and Republican Representatives Billy Tauzin of Louisiana and Joe L. Barton ofTexas. Both states are home to MTBE producers.
Those concerned about protecting our environment should understand that, with the governments retreat from regulation and enforcement, the ability to sue polluters is one of the only weapons left in our arsenal. Undermining that system with "back to the future" tactics bodes ill for environmental, worker and community safety and health.

Between the MTBE provisions and other "goodies" for the energy industry hidden in the bill,
"The big winner is big oil. The big loser is anyone who breathes, pays a utility bill or drinks water," said Anna Aurilio, legislative director for the United States Public Interest Research Group, which has been fighting new energy legislation since a task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney issued the Bush administration's energy policy in 2001.
Congress may vote on this legislation tomorrow. You know what to do.