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MTBE foes prod EPA

Lake Tahoe, state and elected officials are wondering when, and if, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is going to lift a Clean Air Act requirement, an action many believe would help expedite the removal of MTBE from California’s gasoline.

Confusion as to why it hasn’t happened yet exists because an EPA-appointed Blue Ribbon Panel, which was created to look into issues related to the controversial fuel additive, announced months ago that the requirement should be lifted.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has repeatedly asked for this, last week sent a letter to EPA Administer Carol Browner, saying: “It has been six months since you received that report from what everyone agreed was a well-balanced panel of experts. Again, I call on you to quickly approve California’s waiver request.”



The federal Clean Air Act requires cleaner-burning reformulated gasoline be sold in areas with bad violations of ozone standards, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento. The Act prescribes a formula for reformulated gasoline, including the requirement that it have at least 2 percent oxygen.

In response to the requirement, refiners have primarily used the oxygenate MTBE for reformulated gasoline in California.




Now MTBE – methyl tertiary butyl ether – has increasingly ruined groundwater supplies, and as many as 14,000 sites have been contaminated in California. Gov. Gray Davis in March ordered a three-year phaseout of MTBE from California’s gas. Earlier this month, the California Air Resources Board modified its regulations to give refineries more flexibility, which is supposed to help carry out the MTBE ban.

However, without the oxygenate waiver from EPA, MTBE will have to be replaced with ethanol in the high-pollution areas affected by the Clean Air Act. If it is used how MTBE has been, it will be in gasoline supplies throughout the state and not just in the required areas.

Ethanol is toxic, but it breaks down in the ground much quicker than MTBE and is easier to clean up. Still, there are a lot of unknowns about ethanol, and many officials would like the waiver to give officials time to do more research. Ethanol would probably be used in the interim but not as widespread as if the federal requirement is in place.

“There are a lot of ifs out there,” said Dennis Cocking, information officer of the South Tahoe Public Utility District. “We don’t want to replace one problem with another one.”

The district, the primary water purveyor on Lake Tahoe’s south shore, can’t use more than one-third of its wells because of MTBE contamination. While Tahoe is about the only place in the state getting regular shipments of MTBE-free gas now, utility officials support the waiver, believing it would speed up the process to get rid of MTBE statewide.

California’s air board too has long supported the proposed waiver. The main reason for that, says agency spokesman Allan Hirsch, is because California’s reformulated gasoline is clean enough to meet air standards without oxygenates.

“It’s possible to make cleaner-burning gasoline without oxygenates,” Hirsch said. “Oxygenates should be an option for refiners, but it shouldn’t be mandated.

“We think they can phase out MTBE more quickly if we get a waiver,” he added.

Oil companies seem to agree. Tosco Corp., the first company to provide MTBE-free fuel to Tahoe earlier this year, announced this month that it could beat the governor’s Dec. 31, 2002 deadline by more than two years if EPA granted the waiver.

Dave Schmidt, spokesman for the EPA’s regional office out of San Francisco, said Friday that the federal agency was considering what is being asked. However, he said he didn’t know when a decision might be made.

“I think EPA has looked at all the pros and cons, and is looking at this alternative,” he said. “The oxygenate requirement is under review. All of this is being done on a policy level at EPA headquarters, not out of our region.”

MTBE is a suspected human carcinogen. At low levels of contamination it renders water undrinkable, making it smell and taste like turpentine.


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