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Governor signs additive study bill

Patrick McCartney

The University of California will study possible health and water quality problems caused by a controversial fuel additive, under a bill signed into law Thursday by Gov. Pete Wilson.

The law also requires the state to support research on the impact of methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, on Lake Tahoe’s water quality.

Sponsored by Sen. Dick Mountjoy, R-Arcadia, the bill calls for the governor to take any action, including a ban, if the study determines that MTBE poses a threat to the health or water supply of Californians.



Wilson said he has asked the state Energy Commission to report by next May 1 on alternatives to MTBE and the state Water Resources Control Board to convene an advisory panel to study leak histories of underground gasoline storage tanks.

”The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency failed to perform an extensive evaluation of MTBE before granting approval for its use as a gasoline additive,” Wilson said.



The governor also signed a bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Hayden, D-Santa Monica, that requires the state to set safe limits for MTBE in drinking water.

On Thursday, Mountjoy appealed to the governor to halt the use of the additive pending the results of the study.

“I would like to see the governor ban MTBE now or at least place a moratorium on its use unless scientific studies prove it is safe,” Mountjoy said in a prepared statement. “Everywhere there are cars or gasoline, people and water are exposed to MTBE. It is outrageous that Californians are experimental guinea pigs.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency required the wintertime use of oxygen-rich additives to fuel in areas with high levels of carbon monoxide in 1991. The oxygenated additives reduce carbon monoxide by improving combustion.

In March, 1996, the California Air Resources Board mandated the use of oxygenated additives as one of eight components of the state’s reformulated gasoline, which is used year-round and in all areas of the state.

While MTBE is just one of a number of oxygenated additives, its principal competitor, ethanol, is not used in California because of Air Resources Board regulations that seek to minimize the amount of gasoline that evaporates.

But, the use of MTBE has often been accompanied by complaints of respiratory and other health problems. The states of Alaska and North Carolina prohibited the use of the additive, as did the city of Missoula, Mont.

Mountjoy initially proposed an outright ban to the additive in California, but the bill was amended numerous times during the legislative process, and now leaves the decision on whether or not to restrict its use to the governor, following the completion of the university study by Jan. 1, 1999.

The bill also includes a requirement of continued study of Lake Tahoe, after researchers found the additive dispersed throughout the lake. The South Tahoe Public Utility District is also among a small number of water suppliers in the state to discover MTBE contamination in one of its drinking water wells.

Other provisions of the bill require the study to identify combustion byproducts of MTBE. Some medical researchers attribute a nationwide increase in asthma to formaldehyde, which is produced by the combustion of MTBE.

And the bill also calls for a study of how asthma rates have changed in California since the additive was introduced statewide.


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