Another well shut down due to MTBE | TahoeDailyTribune.com
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Another well shut down due to MTBE

B.H. Bose

As interest and questions about an increasingly unpopular gasoline additive continue to rise, so does the number of water wells shut down by the local utility district due to the contaminant’s presence.

On Wednesday night, officials with the South Tahoe Public Utility District closed another drinking water well due to high levels of methyl tertiary butyl ether. It is the seventh well to be shut down recently in the South Lake Tahoe area because of MTBE.

“The plume reached it last night, and the well would have gotten worse so we opted to shut it down,” said Dawn Forsythe, public information officer with STPUD.

MTBE is a gasoline additive that is used to improve combustion, thus reduce the amount of carbon monoxide discharged from automobiles. While it has been a main contributor in the improvement of air quality in California, its presence in water is another story. The contaminant has been linked to certain ailments, such as dizziness and respiratory problems, and the push to get it out of the South Shore water wells is on full throttle.

The state of California has set the allowed level for MTBE at 35 parts per billion, although a proposal to drop that to 14 ppb is in the works. Wednesday night, the level at the Tata Lane well just off Highway 89 reached 37 ppb, and district officials decided to close it.

“It’s another straw on the camel’s back,” Forsythe said. “In response, we had to turn on the South Upper Truckee well, which can be a maintenance nightmare.”

While the new well won’t pump out 70 gallons of water per minute like the Tata Lane well, and will need more maintenance attention, it will be enough to offset the loss of water, Forsythe said.

Officials at STPUD have been keeping their eyes on the Tata Lane well for some time, and have conducted regular testing. It was previously listed as a “threatened” well because it tested positive for trace amounts of MTBE. However, its use continued because even the trace amounts of MTBE were filtered out before the water was distributed to customers thanks to the district’s air stripping treatment. When the levels jumped Wednesday, however, the treatment was unable to completely remove all the MTBE.

Tata Lane now joins Helen 1, Helen 2, Blackrock 1, and Blackrock 2 in the Stateline area, and Arrowhead 1 and Arrowhead 2 in the Meyers area, on the closed list. With seven of the 35 wells out of use, it has put a strain on the water supply. Yet, Forsythe stressed, the supply will still easily meet the demand.

All closed wells, and several “threatened” wells, are located near gas stations. Fuel tanks at these stations have leaked, and some continue to leak, gasoline into the wells.

The tanks at the USA Gas Station are the reason for the latest well closure.

“We currently have an enforcement order on USA Petroleum, which is the owner of the station,” said Lisa Dernbach, associate engineer geologist with the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board. “They are currently planning on groundwater cleanup and cleanup closer to Tata Lane.”

Even before the latest incident, Dernbach said the owners of USA Gas Station were supposed to send a report on the source of the leaks to Lahontan in two weeks.

“We believe there is an ongoing leak and we directed them to locate where the leak was,” Dernbach said. “That site has the largest MTBE plume in the Tahoe Basin. It goes 1,500 feet from the station to the well.”

Dernbach said Lahontan officials are considering legal action against the owners, and just recently they levied an $84,000 fine on the owner of the Beacon gas station in Meyers for “failure to take action or do any cleanup.” Forsythe said STPUD staff are finalizing a legal response to the MTBE contamination, and also met Thursday morning and approved the destruction of the Arrowhead 1 and 2 wells. A search for a new well, “far, far away from any contamination source,” has been under way, Forsythe added.

STPUD officials have decided to launch their own “MTBE-free” campaign, since they believe Gov. Wilson is not taking the MTBE issue seriously. They will send out a resolution urging a ban on MTBE to the California Air Resources Board, the State Water Resources Board, state elected officials, and to the public. Anyone wishing more information about the issue, may call Forsythe at 544-6474, ext. 208.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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