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Got a Boat? Join Lawsuit vs. Giant Oil Companies

In the past couple of years, boat owners Erick Kelesceny, John Egizi, and Todd Jessup kept on filling up their boats' gas tanks like they always had, with unleaded fuel. What they didn't realize was that, since at least 2006, the big oil companies had been taking a chemical called methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) out of the gas mix and replacing it with ethanol.  Both substances increase oxygen content in gas, which gives it a higher octane, but ethanol was considered more environmentally friendly.

Like many members of the general public, Kelesceny, Egizi, and Jessup were unaware of the switch.  They simply started wondering why their boat engines were getting ruined. Turns out, ethanol is alcohol and will attract water into gasoline -- naturally, a bigger problem for boats than for cars. Left sitting, gas-ethanol mixes can experience "phase separation" -- the gas will separate to the top, while the ethanol and water sinks to the bottom.  Furthermore, ethanol is especially corrosive in fiberglass engines because it dissolves the resins in fiberglass, and those dissolved resins then stick to other engine parts, court papers explain.

More after the jump.

The three boaters hired Fort Lauderdale attorney Jeff Ostrow and filed a lawsuit in federal court in August aginst Exxon, Chevron, Conoco Phillips, BP, and Shell. Last week, after Ostrow and his two partners showed up in court against the oilmen's army of 21 lawyers, a judge ruled that the case would not be dismissed. "He ruled for the little guy," Ostrow says.

In court papers, the oil companies blame politicians.  Since 2005, both Congress and the State of Florida have passed laws requiring Big Oil to produce a certain amount of gasoline blended with renewable fuels. The companies were just complying with the law when they replaced MTBE with ethanol, they cried. (A lawyer for the oil companies declined to comment on the case.)

Ostrow pointed out that making gas with ethanol shouldn't prevent the companies from making some gas without it (Florida law even has the exception for boaters written into its statute.) Furthermore, the companies should have warned boaters about the potential effects. "Nobody knew [of the change]" Ostrow said -- "not marinas, not mechanics." He suggested that politicians writing the law had "good intentions in lowering our dependence on foreign oil. The problem is the lobbying from the oil companies, who are enjoying major profits and get major tax benefits [for using ethanol]."

For what it's worth, a local boat mechanic named Jeff Riss -- who has nothing to do with the suit -- says that the switch to ethanol was common knowledge among regular boaters and that smart marina owners know to stock gas that specifically has no ethanol in it.  

The plaintiffs want to be reimbursed for damages, and they are asking for labels on pumps that warn boat owners of ethanol-blended gas. Ostrow is trying to get the case designated as a class-action suit, so that all boat owners --- fiberglass engine or not -- can be awarded. Parties interested in joining the cause are welome to e-mail [email protected]

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Deirdra Funcheon

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