Feinstein bill would drop additive in California | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Feinstein bill would drop additive in California

With a clean-air fuel additive showing up in drinking water supplies statewide, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has introduced a bill that would exempt California from using any oxygenated additive to meet clean air standards.

Also reflecting a shift in the political fortunes of oxy-fuels, the Santa Clara Valley Water District will consider a proposal today to ban motorized watercraft from all its reservoirs, citing concerns over the additive MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether. The proposed ban is the second by a California utility following a phaseout of two-stroke engines at Lake Tahoe approved last year by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced the bill last week, after her pleas for Carol Browner, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to immediately ban the additive produced no results. The Senate bill is consistent with a House bill filed last year by Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-San Diego, which has received the endorsement of 46 members of the California congressional delegation.

The introduction of Feinstein’s bill follows mounting concern by California water providers over the threat of contamination from MTBE, an ether-like compound that dissolves easily in water and is costly to remove. A handful of water agencies across the state, including the South Tahoe Public Utility District, have been forced to close wells when MTBE from leaking underground fuel tanks found its way into drinking water aquifers.

In the last two months, two oil companies have announced their opposition to federal clean-air regulations that require states with high carbon monoxide levels to use oxygen-rich additives in gasoline to provide better combustion.

“I believe that fuel companies should have a mandate to produce clean and environmentally safe fuels, but they should also have some flexibility in how they develop these fuels,” Feinstein said. “I am delighted that fuel companies such as Chevron and Tosco have said they can meet California’s standard for clean-burning fuels without using MTBE.”

The bill would allow California to meet federal clean-air standards for automobile emissions through use of its reformulated gasoline, and drop the mandate for oxygenated additives. While other additives do not pose the same threat to the environment that some believe MTBE represents, the oil industry relies heavily on MTBE, which is produced from natural gas and a gasoline byproduct.

Researchers have found traces of the fuel additive in lakes, including Lake Tahoe and Donner Lake, where recreational boats discharge unburned fuel and emissions into the water. The threat of contamination from MTBE and other hydrocarbons was the impetus for the TRPA decision in June to phase out carbureted two-stroke engines from Lake Tahoe by 1999.

The Tahoe regulation, the first of its kind in the country, was followed by a decision by the East Bay Municipal Utility District to prohibit two-stroke engines from San Pablo Reservoir.

Today, the Santa Clara Valley Water District board of directors will consider suspending the use of motorized watercraft at the three district reservoirs where recreational boating is permitted. The district supplies the wholesale water supply for 1.6 million residents.

The proposal follows statements by state regulators that a tough new secondary standard for MTBE of 5 parts per billion is about to be adopted, said Frank Maitski, a district deputy director.

“We built and own these reservoirs. The primary purpose is to provide drinking water,” Maitski said. “We are finding levels of MTBE in the reservoirs, mostly below 5 ppb, but some are higher although less than 10 ppb.”

Jim Baetge, executive director of the TRPA, declined to take credit for the increasing regulation of motorized watercraft.

“I”m not sure if we were the ones that opened their eyes, or if it is just part of a larger trend,” Baetge said.

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

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