MTBE-free gas arrives in Tahoe |

MTBE-free gas arrives in Tahoe

by Andy Bourelle

It was the beginning of the end. South Lake Tahoe officials hope so, anyway. Tosco Corporation delivered MTBE-free gasoline to its Union 76 station on Lake Tahoe Boulevard Thursday at noon, marking the first time in years that fuel providers on the California side of the Lake Tahoe Basin have offered gasoline without the controversial fuel additive.

There was quite a bit of hoopla surrounding the event. A polished fuel truck, balloons, streamers and free snacks and sodas welcomed state, Tosco, city of South Lake Tahoe, South Tahoe Public Utility District and South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce representatives. More than 10 newspaper and television reporters showed up, too.

And everyone – except for the reporters, of course – had just about the same message to deliver. This is great news. This will – for lack of a better cliche – get the ball rolling.

“I think we’ll see a lot of other gas stations follow suit,” said Jim Jones, chair of STPUD’s board of directors. “I don’t think anyone’s going to want to be the last one to serve MTBE-free gas.”

Others agreed.

“The people at Lake Tahoe don’t want MTBE in their gas,” said California Sen. Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City. “Given market pressure, I don’t think it will be long before others follow.”

Winston Hickox, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, attended on behalf of Gov. Gray Davis, whose action last month facilitated the shipment of MTBE-free gasoline.

“This is a real good example of business responding when the governor gives them an objective – and gives them some room to maneuver to accomplish that objective,” Hickox said.

Tosco workers spent Thursday morning draining the underground storage tanks at the station. And during a ceremony at noon, Tosco put ethanol-blended gasoline in to replace the MTBE-blended stuff. By Friday, Tosco planned to provide all three of its Lake Tahoe California-side 76 stations with MTBE-free gas.

MTBE – methyl tertiary butyl ether – is a gasoline additive classified as a possible cancer-causing agent by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. While some Lake Tahoe gas stations on the Nevada side of the basin don’t use gas with MTBE in it, the controversial oxygenate has occupied large volumes in California. For years, MTBE has comprised as high as 11 percent of California gasoline by volume.

MTBE has polluted more than 10,000 groundwater sites in California. More than one-third of STPUD’s drinking water wells have been closed. Because of that, the district, the city, the chamber of commerce and other Lake Tahoe organizations have been leading the fight to get rid of MTBE – more specifically, to get rid of it from Lake Tahoe.

Last month, after the review of an in-depth report on MTBE and a series of public meetings, Davis ordered a three-year phaseout of the additive from California.

For Lake Tahoe, however, he directed the state government to work with the petroleum industry “to supply MTBE-free California-compliant gasoline year-round to the Lake Tahoe region at the earliest possible date.”

South Shore officials were originally very distraught by the decision. It was wishy-washy, officials said, and offered no guarantees of when MTBE-free gas might make its way to Tahoe. Tosco announced its intention the next day, and South Shore officials quickly changed their feelings.

STPUD, the city and El Dorado County are pursuing the possibility of banning MTBE locally. Depending on how rapidly more MTBE-free gas flows to Tahoe, those plans may be shelved.

“This is the first step in what we hope will be an expedited process to have the entire Lake Tahoe area supplied with MTBE-free gas,” said Judy Brown, mayor of South Lake Tahoe. “I applaud Tosco for taking such swift action on this. And I thank Gov. Davis and certainly California EPA.”

It was easy for Tosco to be the first to supply MTBE-free gas to Lake Tahoe because the company already was doing that for several Bay Area stations, according to Duane Bordvick, vice president of environmental affairs for Tosco.

“We’re really pleased and excited we’re able to start delivering non-MTBE gas to Lake Tahoe,” Bordvick said. “It’s good for us. It’s good for everyone.”

The prices at the 76 station – $1.65 a gallon for regular, $1.85 for mid-grade and $1.95 for premium – are not supposed to rise because of the new fuel.

Will other companies be providing MTBE-free gas to Lake Tahoe?

“Absolutely,” Hickox said.

Chevron has committed to bringing MTBE-free fuel to the basin by July.

At a meeting of STPUD’s board of directors later Thursday afternoon, one of the owners of a South Shore Shell station told the district that her provider was working to accomplish that objective.

“I’d like to assure you all Shell has been working diligently, we have been working diligently, to get MTBE from our gas as soon as we can make that happen,” said Donna Barker, co-owner of the South “Y” Shell.

Tosco could even supply more stations.

“In the Lake Tahoe Basin – this gets a little complicated – we supply at least four other independent stations,” Bordvick said. “What we told them, because they are valued customers, ‘We will make this available to you. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you want it.'”

So if MTBE is on the way out, that’s an end to the problem, right? Sorry, no such luck.

There is still the problem of cleaning up what is already contaminated. STPUD’s MTBE-related costs already are about $1.5 million, and numerous Lake Tahoe gas stations are in the middle of costly cleanup efforts.

What makes MTBE so insidious, as it is often described, is not that it is more dangerous than other gasoline constituents. MTBE’s health risks are still largely unknown, while contaminants such as benzene are known to cause cancer. The problem with MTBE is that it travels quickly in soil; other contaminants adhere to soil. MTBE also breaks down at an extremely slow pace, another contrast to benzene and other contaminants.

Lastly, even if it causes no health problems, MTBE makes water undrinkable. Even at low levels, MTBE-contaminated water smells and tastes like turpentine.

“We’re getting it out of the gas. Now we have to get it out of the water,” Jones said.

In the meantime, officials are pleased that progress is being made to get MTBE from the area. Environmental decision-making and management at Lake Tahoe have long been used as examples throughout California and the country. It looks like the MTBE situation is another example.

“This serves as a great model for the rest of the state,” Leslie said. “It shows MTBE-free gas can be delivered. We’re anxious to see this replicated throughout California.”

Why stop there?

“The federal government needs to take the same action California has,” Bordvick said.

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