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MTBE-free gas enroute to Tahoe

City officials could barely contain their glee Friday following the announcement by Tosco Corporation that it would supply the Tahoe Basin with MTBE-free gasoline beginning April 15. The action was in response to California Governor Gray Davis’ behind-the-scene requests.

The celebration came just a day after feelings of frustration, when Davis publicly announced that refineries would have three years to produce MTBE-free fuel for the state.

“It’s the governor’s intention to react immediately to the sensitive areas, which included Lake Tahoe,” said Michael Bustamante, the governor’s press secretary.



“God bless Governor Davis,” said Dawn Forsythe, spokeswoman for the South Tahoe Public Utility District, which has closed one-third of its wells due to MTBE contamination in the water or surrounding soil. “We thought it was the usual stuff we hear from politicians all the time. Then, less than 24-hours later, action.

“Talk about a roller coaster.”



Discussions planned for the April 13 City Council meeting to place a local ban on MTBE could now be shelved.

“If the oil companies honor the governor’s direction, that won’t be necessary,” Mayor Judy Brown said.

Tosco will begin MTBE-free gasoline deliveries at no additional charge beginning April 15. In the basin, Union 76 and USA Petroleum stations receive fuel from Tosco.

It’s hoped that other refineries will follow suit.

“Governor Davis applauds Tosco’s commitment to the objectives,” Jim Spagnole, communications director for California EPA. “He says that this is exactly what he was thinking when he defined his objectives (to remove MTBE) but with enough latitude for the industry to assist him in getting there.”

MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, was originally added to gasoline to improve combustion and reduce air pollution. It has done so. But leaks, even in new tanks thought leak-proof, have allowed the potentially cancer-causing chemical to sep into the ground where it rapidly spreads.

“We are happy with the governor’s decision, and we are comfortable with the direction of where he wants to go,” said Allan Hirsch, spokesman California Air Resources Board. “He has given us a number of tasks to accomplish, and it’s only been 24 hours, and we plan to follow through with all of those objectives, of which several include the Lake Tahoe area.”

Tosco also has it’s work cut out for it.

“It’s not technically difficult to (provide MTBE-free fuel), said Tosco spokesman Duane Bordvick. “It’s just the time and expense for equipment changes.”

The company already supplies three Bay Area counties with MTBE-free gasoline in a pilot program to examine the impacts.

“Our refineries are able to produce a limited volume of gasoline that can be blended with ethanol instead of MTBE and still meet state (air quality) requirements,” Bordvick said. “The difficulty comes when you start increasing the volume.”

“For Lake Tahoe, in response to the governor’s specific request, we can squeeze some out to supply the Lake Tahoe Basin, at least for our customers.”

To make their job easier, Tosco and other gasoline suppliers hope Governor Davis will lobby to reduce federal mandates for oxygenated fuel. MTBE can be replaced with ethanol to the meet the standards, but at a much higher cost.

“The Governor has recognized the need for California to have relief from the federal oxygen requirement in order to achieve an orderly phaseout of MTBE,” said Tosco Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Thomas D. O’Malley. “We will continue our strong support of California efforts to eliminate this unnecessary mandate.”

Despite the prospect that the Lake Tahoe Basin could soon be free of new MTBE deliveries, the utility district still has its work cut out for it.

“We’re still looking at probably 10 years of remediations; 10 years of water conservation,” Forsythe said. “But if MTBE is out of our service stations, that removes a large potential for disaster.”

– Tribune City Editor Lisa Donahue contributed to this story.


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