Davis decision had repercussions around nation
One year has passed since the governor of California decided the fate of MTBE.
His decision pleased and angered some people. For others it was somewhere in-between – a step in the right direction, they said.
However, it is now hard to deny that the action taken by Gray Davis on March 25, 1999, started the final countdown for MTBE’s termination in the most populous state in the nation and made waves throughout the country, influencing decisions in numerous other states and bringing to light an issue many people had never heard of.
“It’s always easier to set policy when there’s a precedent. Our precedent was California,” said John Turner, legislative director of the New York State Water Resources Commission.
In New York, which, like California, has had widespread contamination problems, the Assembly last month passed a bill to ban MTBE by Jan. 1, 2004. The state Senate is poised to do the same.
And New York isn’t alone. MTBE problems are in the spotlight in numerous states, including Maine, New Hampshire and New Jersey.
“I think California is leading the way,” said California Sen. Dick Mountjoy, a longtime MTBE opponent whose legislation led to Davis’ decision. “I think we in California have led the charge against this stuff. We, in my office, have been in contact with almost every state that uses MTBE. We have worked around the clock.”
John Meinhold, a Sierra Club member from Portsmouth, N.H., said “everything that has come out of California on this issue has assisted other states to take strong action.
“I think California has led the nation in this problem,” he said. “It’s great the governor and the Legislature have acted the way they have.”
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Mountjoy, R-Arcadia, introduced Senate Bill 521 to ban MTBE. Legislators revised the bill before passing it. The revision called for an in-depth scientific study of the additive, a series of public hearings and a prompt but thought-out decision by the governor.
The University of California, Davis completed the study in November 1998, issuing a multi-volume, 2 1/2-inch-thick report on the additive. Public hearings were held in February.
Then, calling MTBE “by far the most complicated issue I’ve had to deal with,” the newly elected Davis announced that MTBE was to be phased out of use by the end of 2002.
He also ordered the California Energy Commission to work with oil companies to provide MTBE-free gas even more quickly to the Lake Tahoe area, which is well known for the MTBE problems that have plagued water providers on its south shore.
Tahoe officials were initially upset with the proposal, describing it as “wishy-washy language” with no guarantees. A day later, Tosco Corp. announced it would bring MTBE-free fuel to Tahoe in April 1999, and Tahoe people changed their attitudes.
Increasingly, oil companies brought MTBE-free fuel to Tahoe in 1999. Only about four stations still have MTBE-laden gas.
Now, a year after the governor’s decision, El Dorado County – with endorsement from the city of South Lake Tahoe and South Tahoe Public Utility District – is poised to ban MTBE from its portion of the Tahoe Basin.
Officials say that the stations have had long enough to voluntarily comply.
The need to do that, according to a member of STPUD’s board of directors, illustrates that the governor’s action wasn’t successful enough.
“I’m not sure that compelled the local gas stations to comply. I think they did it somewhat voluntarily,” said Chris Strohm, board president. “Those that didn’t want to do it obviously didn’t. I think the good ones, the ones without MTBE, are concerned about our water. I don’t think it was the governor’s decision.
“I think we’re all disappointed with the governor’s time frame (to phase out MTBE) and now the Environmental Protection Agency’s,” he added. “I don’t understand why they can’t do it more quickly.”
Winston Hickox, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, said the state is moving in the right direction to accomplish the governor’s order.
“I think we’re on the right track,” Hickox said. “I think we’re right where we expected to be.”
The secretary, who says much of his time in the past year has been dedicated to MTBE-related issues, said he also hopes Tahoe is happy with the efforts to get rid of MTBE there.
“The Tahoe region has been an area of particular importance to the governor,” Hickox said. “A year ago (after his executive order) he immediately called the oil companies to start getting MTBE-free gas to Tahoe. While we’re not there 100 percent, I think we’re close.
“We recognize the need there, and he’s tried to help in addressing it.”
Mountjoy also wants state and federal agencies to move faster.
“When you have something this dangerous in your water supply, you need to move with haste,” Mountjoy said. “The pollution we have now happened in two to three years. If we wait another two to three years, we’ll have that much more. It’s craziness.”
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San Rafael, Calif., resident Juliette Anthony, a member of Santa Monica’s Coalition for Clean Air who has actively fought against MTBE, said she believes the governor’s action has made the rest of the country more aware of MTBE-related problems.
“It signaled other states to start really looking at MTBE more closely,” she said. “It would have been better if the governor had banned it outright. It is a crisis in our state and certainly a crisis in your community at Tahoe.”
Meinhold, of the Sierra Club in New Hampshire, said he believes Davis should be commended for his stance.
“I think it has definitely helped other states,” said Meinhold, who has actively fought against MTBE. “I think it’s helped legislators in other states who want to ban it. It was an important decision.”
Meinhold added that the U.C. Davis study, which called for a phaseout of MTBE, is used nationwide now, too.
“That was a very important piece of legislation that California passed to do that half-a-million dollar study,” he said. “Every dollar spent on that was worth it. I think it helped to have an independent voice say what was going on with this chemical.
“The message that came out of the California study was saying, ‘Look, if we keep this in the gas, not only the state of California but our nation is going to face billions and billions of dollars in cleanup costs.”
Jim Jones, STPUD board member, said he believes California’s action, as well as a January report about MTBE on the award-winning news show “60 Minutes,” has increased awareness about MTBE.
“A lot of people know about it,” said Jones, who recently went to several MTBE-related hearings in Washington as a representative for the Association of California Water Agencies. “In Washington, I think the attitude last year was, ‘Oh, it may not be a big deal.’ That has certainly changed.”
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So what is the next step in the MTBE fight?
It likely has to do with changing the 1990 Federal Clean Air Act, which prescribes a formula for gasoline in areas with bad air pollution problems. Oxygenates are required, and MTBE became the additive of choice for many places, including California.
Gov. Davis, along with federal and state lawmakers as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has been urging Congress to lift that requirement on a national level.
The reason is because that would give oil companies more flexibility as they get rid of MTBE. Without changing the Act, oil companies will be forced to use ethanol, the No. 1 alternative to MTBE, and that would require costly infrastructure changes at refineries.
California also has asked EPA for a waiver to the requirement.
In an announcement earlier this week, Carol Browner, administrator of EPA, said the federal agency supported amending the Act nationally. However, it will probably be summer before EPA makes a decision on California’s request, Browner said.
Even at a place like Tahoe – where most of the gas is now, or soon will be, MTBE-free – it is important for the government to speed up and allow oil companies to stop using oxygenates, thus facilitating the statewide elimination of MTBE, says Jones of STPUD.
“As long as there’s MTBE gas being sold, even if it’s not being sold in the basin, it’s a threat,” Jones said. “A car can come in from outside the basin, roll over and spill a tank of gas – and wipe out a well.”
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