Governor’s decision on MTBE has South Tahoe fuming |

Governor’s decision on MTBE has South Tahoe fuming

Andy Bourelle

South Shore officials are disappointed and upset with California Gov. Gray Davis’s decision concerning the future of MTBE, and they are prepared to move forward with a local ban.

Davis announced Thursday that he would ”begin an immediate phaseout of MTBE from California gasoline, with 100 percent removal by 2002.”

“The governor didn’t go far enough. It’s a drop-dead date; it’s not a phaseout” said Chris Strohm, vice president of the South Tahoe Public Utility District, South Shore’s primary water supplier. “It’s disappointing. We’re disappointed.”

The utility district has closed one-third of its wells since September 1997 because of MTBE contamination. But it isn’t just the agency that feels that way about the decision.

“Personally, it’s very disappointing. We can’t afford another summer with MTBE,” said South Lake Tahoe Mayor Pro Tem Tom Davis.

The governor’s action reinforces plans to move forward with a local ban, officials say.

“We’re going to go ahead with the (Joint Powers Authority between the city, STPUD and El Dorado County) and issue our own ban,” said Mayor Judy Brown.

Lake Tahoe officials had indicated that if Davis didn’t issue an outright ban that he should at least ban its use from the most highly affected areas, such as Lake Tahoe.

While that did not happen, the governor’s decision states: “The California Air Resources Board shall evaluate the necessity for wintertime oxygenated gasoline in the Lake Tahoe air basin. The Air Resources Board and the California Energy Commission shall work with the petroleum industry to supply MTBE-free California-compliant gasoline year around to the Lake Tahoe region at the earliest possible date.”

South Shore’s response?

Strohm described it as “wishy-washy language” with no guarantees.

“I just think it’s frustrating the governor has batted the ball back to the oil industry and state agencies that got us into this mess in the first place,” Strohm said. “He, as a single person, could have cut through all the red tape and bureaucracy and given us what we really need.”

MTBE – methyl tertiary butyl ether – is a fuel oxygenate comprising about 11 percent of California gasoline. However, the additive has contaminated more than 10,000 groundwater sites in California. It is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a possible human carcinogen.

STPUD’s water system supplies about 30,000 people through about 12,500 connections, and at times, because of tourism, the total population served is as high as 60,000. The district’s customers faced mandatory water-usage restrictions for much of last summer and probably will have to comply with the same this year.

To date, MTBE-related costs for the district are about $1.5 million. In November 1998, STPUD filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against manufacturers, distributors and retailers for the district’s MTBE problems.

The governor’s Thursday decision came as a result of legislation passed last year. Sen. Dick Mountjoy, R-Arcadia, introduced legislation calling for the ban of MTBE in the state. It was amended and later passed. The revision called for an in-depth scientific study of the additive, a series of public hearings and a prompt decision by the governor.

This year legislators – including Mountjoy and Lake Tahoe’s representatives in both houses, Sen. Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, and Assemblyman Thomas “Rico” Oller, R-San Andreas – have introduced four bills, calling for an immediate ban of the additive.

While legislators wanted an immediate ban, many indicated the governor’s action was good for California.

“I think overall it’s good. I think we won,” Mountjoy said Thursday, citing the governor’s proposals for Tahoe.

“Still, I wish he would have been more aggressive in all of the state,” he added.

Leslie said in a statement: “While I had hoped the governor would call for an immediate statewide ban of MTBE, I am gratified that the governor is taking action to eliminate MTBE from the Lake Tahoe region.”

Jim Kjol, spokesman for Oller, said: “We’re a little disappointed that the governor didn’t issue an out-right ban of MTBE in Tahoe. In our opinion, that’s what needed to be done. We’re going to continue asking for that to happen.”

Michael Bustamante, press secretary for Davis, said the governor gave a “tremendous” amount of thought to Lake Tahoe before making his decision.

He said an immediate ban wasn’t possible because of the shortage of gasoline it would have caused statewide, and a ban only in the most affected areas also wasn’t feasible.

“I think the governor’s action was the right action from a number of perspectives,” he said. “It was the environmentally prudent thing to do.”

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