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Judge Dismisses
Against Village of Liberty

By Ed Townsend
LIBERTY—March 04, 2003–The lawsuit against the Village of Liberty, Exxon-Mobil VanEtten and Premium Oil has been dismissed.
The case, involving the contamination of MTBE to the well that formerly contributed to the village’s water supply, has been dismissed by Judge E. Michael Kavanagh because the statute of limitations for bringing this lawsuit had expired.
The action had originally been started by Liberty village resident Diane L. Atkins and residents of the Village of Liberty and charged that the defendants (Exxon Mobil Oil Corp., with stations owned and operated by Premium Gas Services and the Van Etten Oil Company) were responsible for the contamination of a well that contributes to the village’s water supply.
The claim charged that Exxon and Mobil added chemicals to their gasoline products that were sold and stored at two gas stations in Liberty. The chemical in question was MTBE.
In court papers, the plaintiffs claimed the gasoline was stored in underground tanks, and they alleged that the tanks leaked, allowing the chemicals in question to contaminate some of the local water supply.
The plaintiffs also claimed that the Village of Liberty, defendants, stored gasoline in tanks located in one of its municipal buildings which also leaked and contributed to the drinking water’s contamination.
In the lawsuit it was stated that the plaintiffs were seeking to recover compensatory, as well as punitive damages, for personal and property injuries caused by their exposure to these chemicals that were found in their water supply.
The legal documents filed by attorney’s representing the plaintiffs acknowledged that, as of the date of filing, they had no medical evidence that any of them had sustained any “cognizable, physical injury” as a result of their exposure to the toxins found in the water.
It indicated they were not seeking damages for any physical injury, but that their claims were restricted to damage to their property which resulted from the contamination of the water and damages that they personally sustained in the form of emotional distress and the fear of future injury that was generated as a result of their exposure to these toxins.
The MTBE issue came to light in December of 1992 when officials of the village were informed that an analysis of a sample of the village water supply established that it contained traces of MTBE, a gasoline additive, and benzene. Additional tests were immediately performed which confirmed these findings that the substances were present at levels that exceeded acceptable state standards.
In response to these findings, the New York State Department of Health prepared on January 22, 1993, an information sheet entitled “A Legal Notice of Violation of Drinking Water Standards,” which was distributed to the community.
This notice was supplemented by a four-page fact sheet, also prepared by the Department of Health, which informed the public that levels of MTBE had been detected in the well and distribution systems at levels that exceeded the state standards.
The report went on to state that the findings did not constitute an immediate health hazard but warned that “exposure to high levels of MTBE affects the central nervous system, blood components, liver, kidneys, adrenals and reproduction in laboratory animals.” The report added that “the health effects from long term exposure at low levels of MTBE are unknown.”
The report further advised Liberty village residents that the use of boiled or bottled water for cooking, bathing and cleaning “would reduce exposure and lessen the risk of illness.”
The legal notice and information distributed prompted widespread concern in the community and there was intense coverage of the issue by the local media.
In addition, for more than six years, beginning in January 1993, alternative sources of water were provided to residents who lived in the affected area.
The court papers signed by Judge Kavanagh said the court requested that plaintiffs provide it with whatever evidence exists that would establish a causal confection between the affliction and the contamination.
These same papers noted that counsel for plaintiff “has candidly acknowledged” to this court that “at this time plaintiffs have no evidence that would support a conclusion that any of them have contracted cancer as a result of their exposure to this contaminated water.”
The court order, signed January 29, 2003 by Kavanagh, ordered “that the motions to dismiss the complaint are granted and the complaint is hereby dismissed.”
The court papers also firmly stated that “this decision should not be interpreted to mean that any plaintiff or any other resident of the Village of Liberty who has sustained a physical injury such as cancer that was caused by exposure to the contaminated water is barred from commencing a legal action and that this decision does not prevent a resident from bringing such action if in fact an illness occurs, presuming that it can be established that the illness was caused by the contaminated water and that the action is brought within three years of when the injury became apparent.”

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