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City to join forces with STPUD, county in MTBE fight

A three-way agreement between the city of South Lake Tahoe, the South Tahoe Public Utility District and El Dorado County may be the best way South Shore officials battle Lake Tahoe’s MTBE problem.

Cathy DiCamillo, city attorney, explained Tuesday evening to the South Lake Tahoe City Council how that approach might give South Shore its best defense against contamination from the controversial fuel additive.

“I agree. I think that’s the way to go,” said Hal Cole, city council member. “I think that this (Joint Powers Agreement) has a little more teeth than if we act alone.”



The city council in October 1998 approved a resolution intending to “consider a ban of the use of MTBE within the city of South Lake Tahoe to protect water sources which are vulnerable to contamination by MTBE if other governing agencies do not take action by April 1, 1999.”

Since no action has been taken by other agencies, the city started its discussions on what to do.




The three-way agreement would increase the agencies’ ability to enforce an MTBE-related action as well as defend itself in the face of possible litigation, DiCamillo said.

While agreeing that it was a good step, Mayor Pro Tem Tom Davis said he felt the city should still consider a resolution to ban the additive at its first meeting in April.

“I think we have to move on this. This is something that is, to me, basically black and white,” he said.

City Council Member Brooke Laine said she was concerned about taking that action before first ensuring that South Shore gas stations would be able to provide MTBE-free gasoline.

“Before we go out and ban something, we have to have a substitute,” she said.

STPUD’s water system supplies about 30,000 people through about 12,500 connections, and at times the total population served is as high as 60,000. Since September 1997, more than one-third of STPUD’s wells have been closed because of MTBE. The district’s customers faced mandatory water-usage restrictions for much of last summer and likely will have to comply with the same this coming summer.

“If next weekend were the Fourth of July, and things were exactly as they are now, we would not have enough water to supply South Lake Tahoe,” Dawn Forsythe, STPUD information officer, told the board. “We’re not short of water. We’re short of water wells. We’re short of the infrastructure because we had to shut those wells down,” she added.

Forsythe said the district is in the process finding ways to better provide water for the summer.

It’s possible that the city’s action won’t be necessary.

A decision by Gov. Gray Davis is expected within weeks concerning MTBE’s future in California. Senate Bill 521 – authored by California Sen. Dick Mountjoy, R-Arcadia – was passed by the state Legislature last year, calling for an in-depth study on MTBE, a public hearing process and a quick decision by the governor. The University of California, Davis, completed the study in November 1998, and the last of the public hearings concluded in February.

Today is the last day the California Environmental Protection Agency is taking written testimony about the additive. The agency is expected to take a few days coordinating the information, and then it will forward a recommendation to the governor. He then has 10 days to decide what to do concerning MTBE. Options include banning it, phasing it out or deciding that it is acceptable to use in California.

“Right now, we have no indication of what the governor is going to do. We’re looking at some time the week of March 29 for the governor to make some sort of decision,” Forsythe said. “I wish I could be more hopeful or optimistic. I really hope Gov. Davis takes a bold step.”

Additionally, legislators – including Mountjoy and Lake Tahoe’s representatives in both houses, Sen. Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, and Assemblyman Thomas “Rico” Oller, R-San Andreas – have introduced four bills this year, calling for an immediate ban of the additive. Another bill calls for a phaseout. However, if versions of those bills make it through the legislature, it probably won’t happen until the fall.

MTBE – methyl tertiary butyl ether – is a fuel oxygenate widely used in California, because many officials believe it helps clean up the state’s air pollution. However, the additive has contaminated more than 10,000 groundwater sites in California. It is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a possible human carcinogen.


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