Charlton seeks help from Erin Brockovich in battle with oil giant
By Debbie LaPlaca
Posted Jan. 25, 2016 at 9:55 PM
Updated at 11:10 PM
CHARLTON – Town officials have enlisted the expertise of a famous environmental activist to help move negotiations with ExxonMobil Corp. to remediate groundwater contamination.
The state Department of Environmental Protection named ExxonMobil the responsible party for contaminating groundwater when large amounts of gasoline leaked from its underground fuel tanks at two Charlton locations in the 1980s and 1990s.
Presently, town officials are focused on the second spill, circa 1990, when Exxon's 6,000-gallon underground tank exploded during maintenance at LaMountain's Service Station, formerly located at Route 20 and North Main Street.
The spill sent gasoline additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether, known as MTBE, and potentially cancer-causing, into the water table.
According to the DEP, that gasoline plume has been traveling south in Charlton's underground waterways and seems to have arrived at Bay Path Regional Vocational Technical High School.
Town and state officials have called on Exxon to remediate tainted water at the school and residences along Old Worcester Road by installing lines to supply municipal water.
Yet negotiations with the oil giant have not gone as planned, and Town Administrator Robin L. Craver recently told selectmen she has sought outside help.
“I was in contact with Erin Brockovich and she has referred an attorney from the city of New York, who has an interest in talking with us about our negotiations with Exxon,” she said at a recent board meeting.
A lawyer from that firm, which Ms. Craver did not name, recently traveled to Charlton for a consultation with Ms. Craver.
“We were looking for any and all advice as we were entering mediation,” Ms. Craver said in an interview. “We were pleasantly surprised that she sent a New York law firm with extensive environmental ligation experience that has had interactions with Exxon in the past.”
Erin Brockovich is the activist who fought to end cancer-causing groundwater contamination in a small California town by building a case against energy giant Pacific Gas & Electric in 1993.
She gained fame from the 2000 film depicting her story of helping those residents win a $333 million settlement from PG&E for contaminating their drinking water.
According to her website, www.brockovich.com, through her foundation she continues to help people who have been adversely affected by environmental issues.
Ms. Craver said she is waiting for word from the New York City law firm on whether they will participate in the negotiations.
It had been reported for some time that Exxon was in the design phase of an estimated $15 million project to install about six miles of water line off Main Street, down Old Worcester Road, across Morton Station Road and up Old Muggett Hill Road to reconnect with Main Street.
The new lines would supply Bay Path, Charlton Middle School and Heritage School, as well as homes on Old Worcester Road.
Most recently, the plan was expanded to include a water line to the Overlook Masonic Health Center, which has agreed to tie in to the municipal water system.
Officials had said Exxon would not proceed with the so-called “school loop” until the water needed to fill the lines was secured.
Last April, Charlton signed a 25-year agreement for Southbridge to supply the Charlton water system with the needed 500,000 gallons of water per day.
At the time, Ms. Craver said the next step was to finalize negotiations with Exxon “to fund the infrastructure that will protect our schools who are in the direct line of the plume.”
Those executive session negotiations, it seems, were not proceeding as planned in October when selectmen received town meeting approval to spend up to $250,000 for mediation with Exxon. The mediation, also conducted behind closed doors, has not reached a successful conclusion.
To a reporter’s queries about the seemingly lengthy mediation, Ms. Craver said, “No comment.”
What she would say is that any agreement with Exxon will go before town meeting voters for ratification, which she hopes will be in May.
“I’m concerned about losing another construction season and leaving the three schools open to possible contamination by the migrating plume (for which) DEP has identified Exxon the responsible party,” she said.
Charlton officials have called the “school loop” part of Exxon’s plan to stay ahead of the migrating gasoline plume.
Exxon began conducting monthly tests of the Bay Path well in 2006 when MTBE was first detected at 2.7 parts per billion. The school has since installed a water filtration system to eradicate the toxin from its drinking water. A pre-filtration water sample taken at Bay Path in October detected MTBE at 6.1 ppb.
The DEP drinking water safety standard says MTBE is not to exceed 70 ppb.
Edmund J. Coletta Jr., state DEP spokesman, said the DEP has not officially attributed the MTBE detections at Bay Path to the LaMountain’s spill.
He said the DEP continues to negotiate with Exxon and Charlton to ensure a plan is finalized to achieve a permanent solution to the groundwater contamination issues.