Lahontan lets utility district down
Cleanup has stopped and may not start again for weeks at a South Lake Tahoe gas station where a “huge mass” of MTBE has contaminated the groundwater.
Ironically, the reason for the delay is action by the South Tahoe Public Utility District, a water supplier which has lost the use of more than a third of its wells because of MTBE and has two wells threatened by the contaminant plume on which it has stopped cleanup.
The party forced to stop cleanup is the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, which took over remediation at Tahoe Tom’s gas station last year.
“We’ve got to be consistent with everyone,” said Jim Jones, STPUD board member. “Lahontan and the state were slow to respond to this thing in the first place.”
Several of the gas stations around South Shore clean up their MTBE contamination by pumping the polluted fuel out of the ground, treating it and then releasing it into the sewer system. To put the clean water into the sewer, the stations need special permission from STPUD, the primary sewer and water provider for South Shore.
About one year ago, however, STPUD discovered that the Tahoe Tom’s station had been having what are called breakthroughs, meaning MTBE had broken through carbon filters used in cleanup. MTBE-tainted water was going into the sewer, and STPUD’s process of recycling its waste didn’t take the controversial fuel additive out of the water.
Contaminated recycled water was being shipped through a 26-mile pipeline out of the basin to a reservoir in Alpine County.
To guard against the problem, STPUD required stations releasing treated water into its sewer to test for breakthroughs of MTBE. And the district has required each of them to sign indemnification clauses, to protect STPUD from possible litigation.
Lahontan, however, has two problems: There have been two recent MTBE breakthroughs at Tahoe Tom’s, and the state agency’s executive officer, Harold Singer, says he doesn’t know if he can get permission from his California superiors to sign an indemnity clause, an action rarely taken by the state.
“I can’t sign it today; I don’t know if I can sign it in two months,” Singer told STPUD’s board at a meeting Thursday. “I will go through the process and try to get it approved.”
The cleanup at Tahoe Tom’s, where a plume of MTBE stretches underground for at least two city blocks, has been halted since Jan. 25.
The other stations releasing once-tainted-but-now-clean water into STPUD’s sewer have signed the indemnity agreements. And none of the stations have had breakthroughs, including Lahontan in cleanup efforts at the other South Shore station it has taken responsibility for, the Meyers Beacon.
“We’re not singling Lahontan or the state out at all with these two sites,” said Chris Strohm, STPUD board president. “It’s across the board.”
Singer appeared before the board Thursday to discuss the situation; however, he did not request any action.
“Hopefully, through some discussion and consensus, we’ll find a win-win situation for everyone,” he said.
Lahontan is the only regional board in California which has taken over MTBE cleanup efforts at gas stations. After delinquent cleanup at Meyers Beacon, Lahontan took over there in 1998. Tahoe Tom’s had expended its resources, $1 million, Lahontan took control there in July 1999.
Tahoe Tom’s, located at 4029 Lake Tahoe Blvd., has had contamination problems since the 1980s. The gas station operators had been cleaning it for years. More contamination started showing up in 1996, but the station’s operators said they thought it was the old plume. When levels of MTBE continued to increase, Lahontan officials knew there had been more gasoline released.
Cleanup there still is inadequate, Singer said Thursday, and a new consultant has been hired to address the problem.
The contaminant plume, while not having traveled as far as it could have, has extremely high concentrations of MTBE. While levels of 5 parts per billion can render water undrinkable, the stuff being pulled out of the ground at Tahoe Tom’s is 22,000 parts per million.
“There is a huge mass of contaminants at this site,” Singer said. “We are very lucky it hasn’t moved further.”
STPUD has two wells in the area that have been shut off to avoid pulling in the contaminant plume. Groundwater – and MTBE – can move up to three times faster than normal when near a pumping well. Other privately owned wells also are threatened by the plume.
Besides releasing the cleaned water into the sewer system, another option available to Lahontan is trucking the MTBE-free water out of the basin. Singer said he would look into that while the cleanup has been delayed. However, it likely will be even more expensive in an already pricey undertaking. Total cleanup costs were already expected to exceed $5 million at Tahoe Tom’s.
What is MTBE?
Methyl tertiary butyl ether is a gasoline additive that has contaminated as many as 14,000 groundwater sites in California. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a possible cancer-causing agent. At low levels of contamination, it makes water undrinkable. MTBE-laden water smells and tastes like turpentine.
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