Feinstein calls for investigation of additive | TahoeDailyTribune.com
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Feinstein calls for investigation of additive

Patrick McCartney

A controversial fuel additive poses an “escalating” threat to the nation’s water supply and should be investigated, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced this week, citing water pollution in South Lake Tahoe as an example.

Feinstein, D-Calif., shared her concerns over the additive methyl tertiary butyl ether or MTBE, in a letter to Carol Browner, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She suggested Browner convene a panel of scientists to investigate the extent of leaks of the ether-based fuel additive and offer recommendations of how to protect the nation’s groundwater supply.

“MTBE groundwater contamination is a particularly serious problem in California, where leaks are occurring with more frequency,” Feinstein said in the letter to Browner. “I am writing to you again because the problem of chemical contamination to our water supply appears to be quickly escalating.”

Feinstein cited the contamination of the Tata Lane well in South Lake Tahoe as one of the incidents that prompted the California Legislature to approve a bill to study on the safety and environmental impacts of the fuel additive.

The bill, SB 521, was approved by both houses, but must be signed by Gov. Pete Wilson before it goes into effect.

In the letter, Feinstein referred to a 1995 study by the U.S. Geological Survey that discovered MTBE contamination of 27 percent of urban wells and springs in the United States. A newer study, she said, showed that 51 public water systems and a number of private wells in five states have also been tainted by the fuel additive.

Feinstein noted that it was Congressional amendments in 1990 to the Clean Air Act that required oil refiners to add oxygenated compounds like MTBE to gasoline in areas with high carbon monoxide pollution. By increasing the oxygen content of gasoline, the additives make the gasoline burn more thoroughly and reduce carbon monoxide emissions.

Many refiners have preferred MTBE as their oxygenated additive, although ethanol has also been used.

But Feinstein added that, while many scientists disagree about the effect of the additive, some researchers believe there is a link between MTBE and certain types of cancer, asthma and other ailments. The EPA has identified MTBE as a possible human carcinogen.


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