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MTBE future up to Davis

What is the future of MTBE in California?

Gov. Gray Davis will make that decision soon.

Last year California Sen. Dick Mountjoy, R-Arcadia, introduced legislation calling for the ban of MTBE in the state. The legislation – Senate Bill 521 – was amended and later passed. The revision, while far from the ban Mountjoy originally asked for, called for an in-depth scientific study of the additive, a series of public hearings and a prompt but thought-out decision by the governor.



The time has come for that to happen. The University of California, Davis completed the study in November, issuing a multi-volume, 2 1/2-inch-thick report on the additive. The first public hearing is today in Southern California; the second is Feb. 23 in Sacramento.

After the second hearing concludes, SB 521 gives the governor 10 days to make a decision regarding MTBE’s future in the state.




“It’s not unreasonable to think Sen. Mountjoy may concur with a short extension given the volume of information to go through,” said Jim Spagnole, director of communications for California Environmental Protection Agency. “But the decision will be forthcoming.”

Davis must decide whether MTBE poses significant risk to human health or the environment. If he does make that certification, the bill says he must take “appropriate action.”

Whether the appropriate action could be an outright ban, a phaseout or a call for more studies is unknown.

“That’s not for us to speculate,” Spagnole said. “Right now we’re just at the public-testimony part of the process.”

Officials of the South Tahoe Public Utility District know what decision they want the governor to make.

“MTBE needs to be banned immediately. We’re not backing a phaseout; we want the MTBE out immediately,” said Chris Strohm, vice president of STPUD’s board of directors.

Strohm will be testifying at the Sacramento hearing.

“I see myself as the representative of a desperate district. We have no short-term fixes for this,” he said.

After several of STPUD’s wells started closing because of MTBE contamination, district officials became very proactive in trying to make California MTBE free.

“We feel like we started the snowball rolling in regards to banning MTBE. Right now it’s a huge snowball, and all we’re trying to do now is guide it,” Strohm said.

How big is the snowball?

Already in 1999, four bills have been introduced into the Legislature, calling for a ban of the additive, including bills by Lake Tahoe’s representatives: Assemblyman Thomas “Rico” Oller, R-San Andreas, and Sen. Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City.

“The governor has the ability to do it right now, and the bills have to move through the Legislature and still end up on the governor’s desk. Then it would need a two-thirds vote to overrule him, I guess,” Strohm said. “He has the opportunity to do the right thing in March.”

On the day of the Sacramento hearing, Leslie is planning a rally to protest the use of MTBE and to persuade the governor to ban it.

“It is essential for Californians to raise their voices to send a message loud and clear to Gov. Davis and the bureaucrats,” Leslie said. “That message is: ‘Kick MTBE out of California now.'”

In October 1998, the South Lake Tahoe City Council adopted a resolution intending to “consider a ban of the use of MTBE within the city of South Lake Tahoe to protect water sources which are vulnerable to contamination by MTBE if other governing agencies do not take action by April 1, 1999.”

While city officials are hopeful Gov. Davis bans the additive, they are prepared to take action, too, according to Mayor Judy Brown.

“There’s still an appetite to go ahead and follow through. It depends on what the governor does. I think we want to emphasize the enforcement part instead of passing something in namesake only,” she said. “I’m hopeful the governor does it.”

STPUD and the city are not the only Tahoe agencies trying to get MTBE out of Lake Tahoe. Other agencies have passed resolutions or written letters to the governor urging him to make Tahoe MTBE free, including the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, Tahoe City Public Utility District, South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce and El Dorado, Placer and Alpine counties.

Additionally, STPUD isn’t the only South Shore water provider and not the only utility hopeful the governor takes action.

The Lukins Brothers Water Company supplies drinking water to about 900 South Lake Tahoe customers, and one of its wells also is contaminated.

“We hope the governor definitely does make some kind of necessary action to deal with the MTBE problem,” said Michelle Lukins, a corporate officer for the company. “The problem just isn’t going to go away unless MTBE is out of here.”

The Round Hill General Improvement District takes its water from an intake in the lake itself, and officials detected low levels of MTBE in the water there last summer. Even though the district is in Nevada, Round Hill officials believe an elimination of MTBE in California would certainly help.

“I would hope they ban it. That’s my reaction,” said Bob Loding, manager of the Round Hill General Improvement District. “We’re facing the same issue with the public being concerned about it, concerned about it being in our water supply. If they can eliminate MTBE in our fuel, I know everyone in our district would support it.”


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