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Gas accidents not totally preventable

With the fact that all gasoline service stations now must have their underground storage tank systems upgraded, that must mean gasoline – and the controversial additive MTBE – should no longer create a serious threat to sources of groundwater. Right?

Not necessarily, an advisory panel to California Gov. Pete Wilson’s is finding.

Jim Jones, chair of the South Tahoe Public Utility District Board of Directors and a member of the Advisory Panel on the Effectiveness of 1998 Standards for Underground Storage Tanks, said the group has found that there are still problems with a lot of the systems.



“Even the most modern systems are having significant problems,” Jones said. “I don’t see how they can design fool-proof systems that will protect our groundwater. There’s human error, construction mistakes. It doesn’t take much. A few hundred gallons can contaminate a lot of groundwater.”

Of more than 25 members on the board, Jones is one of five people representing water agencies. The panel was formed in December 1997, and the group’s final report, summarizing its findings, should be released by the end of December.




However, according to Jones, upgrading underground storage tank systems is not the solution to keeping MTBE – methyl tertiary butyl ether – from damaging groundwater sources.

What is the solution?

“Get MTBE out of the gas,” Jones said.

MTBE is an oxygenated fuel additive comprising about 11 percent of California gasoline. However, it is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a possible human carcinogen.

More than 10 plumes of the additive are present in the groundwater on Lake Tahoe’s south shore, and STPUD has closed 35 percent of its wells because of the threat to groundwater supplies.

Unlike other gasoline compounds, such as benzene, MTBE moves rapidly in groundwater and breaks down very slowly.

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