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MTBE closes five wells, raises concerns

B.H. Bose

While testing for methyl tertiary butyl ether in underground drinking wells began only a few years ago, the presence of the contaminant has recently closed five wells in the South Lake Tahoe area and has threatened the local district’s ability to meet the upcoming summer demand.

During a public meeting, South Tahoe Public Utility District staff members briefed the board members on the status of the threatened wells. Nine wells have been deemed vulnerable to MTBE, which has been associated with several human health problems such as respiratory ailments. Four in the Stateline zone (Helen 1 and 2, Blackrock 1 and 2) and one well in the Arrowhead area (Arrowhead 1) have been closed as a result of the contaminant, while several more “threatened” wells will be used only to meet the high summer demand. There are 35 wells total, 26 which have tested negative for MTBE and are a fair distance away from underground fuel tanks. The loss of water means the district will have to work overtime and pump water from other zones in the coming months. It also means the available water will reach crucial lows when the population explodes this summer as tourists and part-time residents head to the area.

“We are really going to have to baby-sit our system,” said Rick Hydrick, water operations manager with STPUD. “I got a call from one of our guys who wondered how we are going to do this. We are going to have to be on this on an hourly basis. We will be OK, but not if any other wells run into trouble.”

The wells in question are located near gas stations with leaking tanks. The gasoline in turn has slowly percolated into drinking wells or dangerously close to the wells. Despite enforcement by the district and the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Board, several of the tanks may still be currently leaking. This has prompted the district to discuss possible legal action against several of the owners. Board members and legal counsel met in a closed session after the public meeting to determine if any action should be taken.

“We are surely seeing leaks and we have to figure out what is going on,” said Harold Singer, executive director with Lahontan, to the STPUD board. “The sites you are all talking about are owned by independents. Retrofitting is very expensive and could push the independents to the brink of bankruptcy. With the pressure we are putting on them, we may not see them in business in the near future.”

Although Singer told the board to remember most of the stations are owned by individuals and not major corporations, he did add that Lahontan will also take action if the owner is “recalcitrant to the point where he or she is not going to do anything.”

The recent findings have also prompted the board to look for additional sources of water in the near future. While STPUD may be able to meet the supply this summer, concerns for the future were raised by board members. Options mentioned were finding other well sites (Highland Wood is a future site, but is located near a leaking tank and already may contain traces amounts of MTBE), looking into surface water, and examining old well sites that might be able to be used again.

Studies by the state of California and throughout the nation are being conducted on MTBE.

A gasoline additive used to improve combustion, thus reducing the amount of carbon monoxide discharged from car’s, MTBE was approved by the California Air Resources Board in 1996. The additive has helped cut down on pollutants in the air and, it is reported, has greatly improved the state’s air quality.

The ramifications it has on health when it is in the water supply is another story. The allowed level for MTBE in the state of California is set at 35 parts per billion. A proposal to drop that to 14 parts per billion is in in the works. The Helen wells, located near the South Lake Tahoe Beacon station, tested for 1,000 parts per billion.

While the furor over MTBE continues, officials with STPUD want it known that while it may be difficult to meet the high summer demand, the water will be there and it will be safe.

“The water is safe, and we will meet summer demand if all wells operate normally,” Bob Baer, general manager of STPUD, told the board. “A water conservation plan must be in place, but we will provide enough safe water with extraordinary operating ability.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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