"I'll never forget how I got involved in MTBE," says Summy. At the time, he had never heard of the chemical, but he told the Wilmington people he would look into it, and if he could help, he would.
As Summy began exploring their water problem, he began to understand both the dangers of MTBE, and the extent to which the gas additive and American oil companies had caused drinking water problems, not just for the people in Wilmington, North Carolina, but also for communities all across the United States. It was a colossal environmental time bomb.
In the early 1980s, oil companies were searching for a way to boost the octane lost due to the switch to unleaded gasoline. To American oil companies the obvious solution was a gas additive called MTBE. There were other choices, but MTBE was cheap and available. Documents uncovered by Summy revealed evidence that proved many companies knew MTBE could cause trouble, but chose to ignore the information.
"In fact, in some instances," says Summy, "internal documents from oil company engineering departments said, 'don't add MTBE to the gasoline, you will contaminate America's drinking water.'"
MTBE dissolves easily in water and once it is loose in the soil, it likes to attach itself to water molecules. If a gas station storage reservoir leaked, MTBE would quickly travel through the soil and make its way to the largest water source it could find. Unfortunately, it often then made its way into local drinking water supplies.
"It has an affinity for water," says Summy. "That's one of the things that makes MTBE so hard to deal with." It is potent stuff too. A couple of drops of MTBE can foul an Olympic sized pool of water, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says MTBE causes cancer in animals, and may cause cancer in humans.
What about those folks back in Wilmington, North Carolina? Summy filed what turned out to be the very first MTBE contamination suit in the United States on their behalf. In 1997, The Conoco Oil Company settled with the residents for an undisclosed amount of money.
Since then, Summy's law firm, Barron and Budd, has become one of the country's most successful contaminated water litigators. Summy and the firm recently won the largest settlement ever against American oil companies for their part in MTBE contamination of dozens of municipal water supplies, including 153 public and private water supplies and municipalities from 17 different states.
"This settlement is so satisfying for our firm and our clients, because there has been no case in history that has done more for America's drinking water," says Summy.
The defendants in the case, BP Amoco, Atlantic Richfield, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell, Marathon, Valero, CITGO, Sunoco, Hess, Flint Hills, El Paso Merchant Energy, and Tesoro have agreed to pay $422 million to fix public drinking water problems associated with MTBE.
"I know there is a concern that consumers will ultimately pay at the pumps for this type of settlement," says Summy. "These oil companies are flush with profits, and the least these oil companies can do is put this money forward and help clean America's drinking water. They are the ones that solely caused this problem."
Many times lawyers are summoned to represent clients well after the damage has been done. In this most recent case, however, Summy believes the firm's efforts will actually prevent future injuries.
"Our clients, the public drinking water providers, have already been injured, but with our assistance, and with this settlement, they are able to clean the water which will prevent future exposure for generations of the American public to a potentially dangerous chemical."
Scott Summy is a graduate of the Texas Tech University School of Law (J.D. 1990) and Tarleton State University (B.A. 1986, cum laude). He is a shareholder in Baron and Budd. Barron and Budd have offices in Texas, California and Louisiana. Its 40 lawyers represent individuals with asbestos related diseases, public water providers seeking clean-up costs, investors defrauded by corporate wrongdoing, and consumers in class action suits.