Years later, MTBE still a danger to water supply

February 18, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
The additive MTBE was supposed to help air pollution by making gasoline burn cleaner in our cars, but it fouled water supplies across the state. Years after it was banned, we are still feeling the effects.

MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) was supposed to help clear air pollution by making gasoline burn cleaner. But as the I-Team showed you in the mid-90s, it ate away rubber fuel lines in cars, leading to fires and recalls. But, MTBE was not banned until the suspected carcinogen started showing up in drinking water.

"It is simply unacceptable to clean the air by polluting our groundwater," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in 1999.

Seven years after the ban, we are just beginning to understand the magnitude of the problem -- groundwater contaminated by MTBE, wells that supply drinking water to the public, knocked out of service.

"On the order of 200 public supply wells in California have been affected by MTBE to the point they've had to be taken offline," UC Davis Hydrologist Graham Fogg said.

Fogg is one of the nation's foremost experts on MTBE. He says the problem started with the state's 55,000 underground fuel tanks.

"The basic axiom is if you put a liquid underground, eventually it will leak," Fogg said.

And once MTBE leaked from underground tanks, it did not act like other components of gasoline, which stick to soil and biodegrade. It stayed intact and traveled with the groundwater.

An exhibit from a MTBE lawsuit and trial last summer in New York show a gasoline spill at a Port Hueneme gas station. The MTBE plume extends more than half a mile farther than the original fuel spill. A jury ordered ExxonMobil to pay more than $100 million.

"We know there are a lot of plumes that are out there and migrating that are unknown today," Fogg said. "There's the potential to have effects decades into the future, or maybe even centuries."

Once crews spot a MTBE plume, the cost of a cleanup can be huge.

For example, an underground fuel tank at a Burlingame business leaked. The state's limit for MTBE in drinking water is 13 parts per billion. At one point, the groundwater near the leak measured around 1,500,000 parts per billion, according to Nicholas Haddad, vice president of TEC Accutite.

Haddad and his technicians have set up an elaborate filtering system and $800,000 later, the MTBE level is coming down.

And taxpayers are picking up the tab.

At the pump, you pay 2 cents per gallon to the state's underground storage tank cleanup fund. But, there is more; the experts say oil companies are passing on the cost of MTBE lawsuits -- now, over $1 billion total -- to you with higher prices nd water agencies are passing on the cost of cleanup and of finding new, clean water sources to you with higher rates.

"It's not necessarily a government expense, but if you're talking about the total cost to Californians as a whole, it's big, it's going to continue," William L. Rukeyser, of the State Water Resources Control Board, said.

It is an especially sensitive issue in San Mateo County, where a test showed this week the groundwater is just four feet from the surface.

Most of the county's drinking water comes from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, but some towns use wells and the groundwater is an important backup for the entire county.

"If there was a major earthquake and the Hetch Hetchy line were to rupture, the municipalities and the citizens of San Mateo County would have to rely upon groundwater," San Mateo County Environmental Health Director Dean Peterson said.

Peterson says he has 154 open cases of MTBE contamination. He has had to add staff to handle the load.

"We have not yet felt the true impact and the worst is yet to come," attorney Victor Sher said.

Sher has built a career on MTBE, suing oil companies. He represents the California Water Service company, which has had 30 wells around the state contaminated by MTBE.

He says the saddest part of this story is that it could have been avoided.

"The industry leaders like Exxon and Shell knew absolutely that by adding MTBE to their gasoline, they were creating a major groundwater problem," Sher said.

Sher cites an internal Exxon memo from 1985 in which a researcher concludes, "We recommend that from an environmental risk point of view MTBE not be considered as an additive to Exxon gasolines on a blanket basis throughout the United States."

Sher says Exxon and other oil companies went ahead with MTBE without taking steps that could have protected our water supplies.

"You can upgrade your tanks, you can upgrade your piping, you can upgrade your monitoring systems and your leak detection systems and you can modify the way you respond if you think there's been a leak and they didn't do any of those things; in fact, they actively hid the ball about MTBE," Sher said.

The oil companies used MTBE with the approval of the state. But, that was a basic problem -- air officials did not consult with water officials about the potential impact of MTBE.

The good news is that you can taste and smell MTBE in drinking water, before it gets to levels that can harm you, so, water agencies have a major incentive to keep their product clean.


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