EPA learns what Tahoe already knows: MTBE is bad stuff
Lake Tahoe officials are applauding the federal government’s announcement to promptly rollback the use of the controversial fuel additive MTBE, a decision based on a report released Tuesday from a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advisory panel.
At the same time, however, South Shore water providers find it a little disconcerting that the so-called Blue Ribbon Panel on Oxygenates and Gasoline has made conclusions they’ve been saying all along.
“Most of this is all old news for us,” said Dennis Cocking, information officer for the South Tahoe Public Utility District, the primary water purveyor for Lake Tahoe’s south shore. “I’m glad to see the federal EPA taking a stand. It will help speed up the process for the state and everywhere else in the country, but (the report) is pretty much all the stuff we’ve been saying for a few years.”
The action likely will have little effect at Lake Tahoe because an order by California Gov. Gray Davis has the area well on its way to being MTBE-free. However, more than a third of STPUD’s wells are closed because of MTBE contamination, and officials are still pleased.
“The ball is rolling, which is good,” Cocking said. “We’re for anything that will get it out quicker.”
The methanol-based additive in ”reformulated gasoline,” used in about a third of the nation’s motor fuel in 16 states, once was touted as key to cutting air pollution from automobiles. However, MTBE is considered a possible human carcinogen and at low levels of contamination makes water undrinkable. A University of California study concluded that MTBE has affected at least 10,000 groundwater sites in the state.
The advisory panel, comprising diverse interests from environmentalists to oil industry executives and state regulators, found that while reformulated gasoline has contributed to significant air quality improvements, MTBE poses a growing threat to drinking water.
Daniel Greenbaum, chair of the panel, said Tuesday that MTBE does not yet pose health concerns. The panel found only trace levels of MTBE in 5 to 10 percent of the drinking water in areas where reformulated gasoline is sold.
”This is not an issue of health and safety,” Greenbaum said. ”But when you cannot use a water supply because your consumers will not drink it, that is a huge loss to a community.”
The panel concluded that MTBE use in reformulated gasoline ”should be reduced substantially.” Two of the panel’s members recommended it be banned entirely, and the group said Congress should give states clear authority to do just that.
Greenbaum emphasized that the panel does not call for the outright banning of MTBE, but that alternatives to MTBE be more widely brought into use as additives to gasoline to ensure the air quality gains made under the program are not eroded.
EPA Administrator Carol Browner said Monday that the EPA ”must begin to significantly reduce the use of MTBE in gasoline as quickly as possible without sacrificing the gains we’ve made in achieving cleaner air.”
Robert Perciasepe, EPA’s assistant administrator for air and radiation, said Tuesday that any changes to the program must also protect American consumers from fluctuations in gas prices and preserve the use of renewable fuels, such as corn-based ethanol.
It was unclear what a change in MTBE use would have on gasoline prices, but some experts expect it may cause increases at the pump as refiners find other ways to reduce toxic chemical releases.
Congress in 1990 required that gasoline sold in areas with severe air pollution contain a higher amount of oxygen so gasoline would burn more completely. Oil companies responded by using MTBE, methyl tertiary butyl ether. While other additives such as ethanol also could be used, MTBE has been by far the widest choice.
Reformulated gasoline is required to be sold in all or part of California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. Parts of Arizona and Nevada also use the fuel because some of the gasoline supplies come from California refineries.
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SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The reopening of U.S. Highway 50 starts 8 a.m. today for residents and property owners in preparation for its full opening 8 a.m. Tuesday.