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MTBE ousted

by Andy Bourelle

Goodbye, MTBE. It hasn’t been fun.

In 30 days, selling MTBE-laden fuel will be illegal in a portion of the Lake Tahoe Basin.

The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors Tuesday unanimously approved an ordinance making it against the law to sell MTBE in the county’s portion of the basin, punishable with a $1,000 fine and six months jail time for each violation.



“I think it’s probably one of the first places in the nation with a complete ban,” said Dave Solaro, the El Dorado County supervisor who spearheaded the effort to get the ordinance passed. “I think it’s certainly the first with criminal penalties attached.”

The governor of California last year ordered MTBE phased out of use statewide by 2003. And also as part of the order, he directed the state to work with oil companies to get MTBE-free gas to Tahoe quicker. Tahoe officials, considering a local ban at the time, decided to take a wait-and-see approach and were satisfied as stations increasingly started serving MTBE-free fuel to the area.



Last month, however, with at least four South Shore stations still serving MTBE, Supervisor Solaro said he felt there had been enough time, and he would push a local ban. Tuesday was the second reading, and it passed unanimously with no opposition.

The MTBE ban will go into effect April 28.

“Our environmental health department will be sending letters out to all the stations still not in compliance, letting them know it’s now against the law,” Solaro said. “The fact that it will have criminal penalties hopefully will get the remaining four or five’s attention.”

The city of South Lake Tahoe and the area’s primary water provider strongly endorsed the plan.

“Getting this ordinance on the books is a giant step,” said Dennis Cocking, spokesman for the El Dorado County-based South Tahoe Public Utility District, which has lost more than a third of its drinking water wells because of MTBE. “We couldn’t be happier and certainly appreciate all of Dave’s hard work and everyone who worked on this.”

MTBE – methyl tertiary butyl ether – is a gasoline additive that has been used for years, and it is increasingly contaminating groundwater supplies nationwide. It comprises more than 10 percent of California’s gasoline, and more than 10,000 sites statewide have been contaminated.

A suspected human carcinogen, MTBE can render water undrinkable at low levels of contamination, giving it a turpentine-like taste and odor.

STPUD, South Shore’s biggest water purveyor, has had water-usage restrictions the past two summers because of all the shut-down wells.

The California Energy Commission last month said that five stations still were serving MTBE-laden fuel in the area: the Roadrunner in Meyers; Lake Tahoe Gas and Wash, Stop N’ Save and Tahoe Tom’s in South Lake Tahoe; and the Swiss Mart on Emerald Bay Road.

Lake Tahoe Gas and Wash owner Michael Khatib, who took over the station in December, said his facility is now MTBE-free.

“We made the decision to take care of our community and the environment,” Khatib said. “The (state) law says you have until December 2001 or 2001. I said I don’t care. If it will help the environment and the community, I want to do it now.”

Ed Givant, owner of Stop N’ Save, said Tuesday that he would have no problem finding MTBE-free gas. But it would cost substantially more than what he pays now.

“We’re already starting to order MTBE-free gas,” he said.

A Roadrunner employee said his station also would change over.

Swiss Mart and Tahoe Tom’s managers could not be reached Tuesday.

breakout

What the ban says:

Prohibition of sale of fuel containing MTBE: Fuel containing MTBE is hereby banned from sale in the Lake Tahoe Basin within El Dorado County. The board of supervisors also recognizes and declares the Lake Tahoe Basin to be a sensitive subregion of the county with vulnerable groundwater that will be adversely affected by the sale of fuel containing MTBE.

Penalty for violation: Each violation of this chapter shall constitute a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine or six months in jail or both. A separate violation shall accrue for each calendar day in which said violation shall continue uncorrected and be punishable accordingly.


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