Audit critical of inaction on MTBE problem |

Audit critical of inaction on MTBE problem

Although the state of California has ample evidence that gasoline leaking from underground storage tanks is jeopardizing the safety of drinking water supplies, it has not acted decisively to address the potential health hazard, according to a California State Auditor’s report relating to MTBE.

A report, summarizing a several months investigation of state agencies, was released last week, stating the state’s process for regulating the safety of its water and ensuring gasoline does not contaminate drinking-water sources “has multiple shortcomings.”

To the South Tahoe Public Utility District, which has closed 35 percent of its drinking water wells because of MTBE contamination, it is further proof that the district needs to form a Groundwater Management Plan, giving it regulatory authority over the groundwater within the district.

“As long as MTBE is in gasoline, and as long as state and federal agencies take a lackadaisical approach to problems we all know exist, the district, together with the city of South Lake Tahoe and El Dorado County, has to assume leadership,” said Bob Baer, STPUD general manager. “Until we see real action from the state or federal environmental agencies, Tahoe is basically left on our own.”

Requested by Sen. Byron Sher, D-Palo Alto, the audit investigated the California Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Health Services and State Water Resources Control Board.

The report states: “As early as 1990, Health Services’ officials became aware that MTBE was contaminating drinking water wells within California; however, Health Services did not establish regulations to test for MTBE in drinking water until 1997, nor did it adopt interim emergency regulations, even though it has the authority to do so.

“The state board also shares responsibility for not providing leadership to the regional boards and local agencies responsible for alleviating groundwater contamination because it has not yet issued specific guidelines or standardized procedures for cleaning up MTBE,” the report continues. “Thus, MTBE levels at some contaminated groundwater sites remain high, posing potential threats to nearby drinking water wells.”

The report, released Dec. 17, makes several recommendations to the state agencies about how to better ensure the safety of drinking water from gasoline contamination.

The recommendations include:

n California EPA needs to increase efforts to identify storage tanks without permits, issue permits when appropriate, monitor storage tank safety and penalize owners or operators that delay in reporting leaks.

n The Department of Health Services needs to strengthen its process for promptly obtaining and analyzing laboratory results from all public water systems so it can quickly notify other agencies of threats to drinking water.

n Health Services and the California Water Resources Control Board should participate in establishing a geographical information system to help the state monitor risks to drinking water sources and allow for state and local agencies to exchange accurate information.

n The Water Resources Board should use its enforcement authority to penalize storage tank owners and operators who do not comply with the law.

Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board Executive Officer Harold Singer said Lahontan started increasing its enforcement authority in early 1998. Many of the recommendations concerning the water board are similar to those made by an audit of Lahontan released in November, Singer said, which the regional board is in the process of incorporating, or already has incorporated.

MTBE – a fuel additive comprising about 11 percent of California gasoline – has contaminated more than 10,000 groundwater sites in California. Classified as a possible cancer-causing agent, MTBE – methyl tertiary butyl ether – can be detected in water at low levels of contamination because it has a horrible taste and odor.

Since September 1997, 12 of STPUD’s 34 drinking water wells have been closed down because of the threat of MTBE contamination. The STPUD board of directors initiated action to start the process of adopting a Groundwater Management Plan in August, which will give STPUD regulatory authority over the groundwater within its boundaries and allow the district to issue penalties for contamination of its wells.

The district’s ability to adopt the GMP comes out of California legislation passed earlier in the 1990s. The constituents of the district have the ability to protest the GMP and can stop its creation with 50 percent of the property owners by assessed valuation against it.

The California State Auditor’s complete report “California’s Drinking Water: State and Local Agencies Need to Provide Leadership to Address Contamination of Groundwater by Gasoline Components and Additives” is available on the World Wide Web:

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