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MTBE could become worldwide problem

While efforts are strengthening to rid the United States of the controversial fuel oxygenate MTBE, worldwide use of the gas additive likely will increase 20 percent this year, according to the Oxygenated Fuels Association.

This has MTBE opponents from around the country worried that contamination in California and other locations is just the beginning of what could become a worldwide crisis.

“What’s happening to Tahoe and Santa Monica with MTBE is just a snapshot of what can happen worldwide,” said John Meinhold, a Sierra Club member from Portsmouth, N.H. “MTBE, as ’60 Minutes’ showed, has obviously become a national crisis. With them planning to increase production of MTBE, I think it could become a global problem.”



In its newsletter “World Oxygenates Monthly,” the Oxygenated Fuels Association, a nearly 20-year-old international trade association dedicated to advancing the use of oxygenated fuel additives, reports “despite all the negative publicity, demand for MTBE in the U.S. continues at a high level … .

“We anticipate that MTBE use in the U.S. will continue more or less at its present level until about 2004,” states the December 1999 newsletter.



On a global scale, the Oxygenated Fuels Association expects “an average increase in demand of just over 20 percent between this year and the next.”

“Even though MTBE demand in the U.S. might level out, the slack will be taken up by Europe and southern Asia, and worldwide MTBE demand will continue to grow,” states the document.

MTBE – methyl tertiary butyl ether – is a gasoline oxygenate used widely around the country and especially in California. However, it has increasingly polluted water supplies. One of the primary water providers at Lake Tahoe, the South Tahoe Public Utility District, has closed more than one-third of its 30-plus wells because of MTBE groundwater contamination.

“I think you folks in Tahoe have firsthand knowledge of MTBE problems,” Meinhold said. “Alarm bells should be going off around the world.”

San Rafael, Calif., resident Juliette Anthony, who has actively fought against MTBE and is a former member of Santa Monica’s Coalition for Clean Air, said because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t have a policy on MTBE yet, that gives the oxygenate industry a green light to increase worldwide sales.

“We’re not taking a leadership position on keeping MTBE from polluting the rest of the world,” she said.

“You (at Tahoe) have a serious problem in your own neighborhood; it’s hard to see the big picture,” Anthony added. “Imagine what’s happening in Lake Tahoe magnified around the world. You have a crisis in Lake Tahoe. Imagine that in a rural part of China. They would be helpless.”

Dennis Cocking, STPUD information officer, said he wasn’t surprised.

“I think they see the writing on the wall in terms of MTBE in the United States,” Cocking said. “If you saw the writing on the wall, that your product might be banned in the U.S. or at least is on the way out, you would probably look for other markets.”

After the Clean Air Act passed in 1990, the federal government ordered the phase-in of oxygenates in gasoline sold in the nation’s smoggiest urban areas. MTBE became the additive of choice.

California now is the nation’s top consumer of MTBE, and most of the state’s fuel supplies are about 11 percent MTBE. However, responding to widespread contamination in an estimated 14,000 sites around the state, Gov. Gray Davis last year ordered use of the additive phased out by the end of 2002.

MTBE problems are often associated with Tahoe, where it has been found in drinking water wells and the famous blue lake, and Santa Monica, Calif., a city of 92,000 that has shut down at least half of its wells and is now importing most of its water.

MTBE problems are also popping up around the country, and other states are taking action. Officials from eight northeastern states from New York to Maine last month urged Congress for quick action on MTBE. The New York State Assembly last week passed a bill to ban MTBE by 2004, and the State Senate is reportedly poised to approve the measure, too.

EPA has classified MTBE as a possible human carcinogen.

But even though its potential health hazards are not so well documented as other gasoline compounds, MTBE has created huge problems for other reasons. While other constituents adhere to the soil, traveling slowly, MTBE permeates the ground at the same rate as water. MTBE also breaks down much more slowly than other contaminants, and it is difficult to clean up.

Another problem is the taste and odor. At low levels – sometimes below 5 parts of the additive per billion parts water – MTBE-contaminated water smells and tastes like turpentine. Even if it poses no health risks, it can make water undrinkable.

The Oxygenated Fuels Association has long been an advocate of MTBE, saying it is important for clean air, the health risks are still unknown and the contamination problems are mostly caused by leaks from out-of-date underground storage tanks that need to be upgraded.

A report on the association’s Web site states: “When the scientific weight-of-evidence is applied, unencumbered by media hype, politics and economic competitive interests, then the conclusions are clear – MTBE is a safe, beneficial, reliable, cost-effective component in today’s cleaner-burning, beneficial gasoline.”


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