MTBE proponents suspect storage tanks for contamination |

MTBE proponents suspect storage tanks for contamination

by Andy Bourelle

Supporters of the controversial fuel additive MTBE claim underground storage tank systems are to blame for the vast amounts of contamination in California.

South Shore officials don’t see it that way. They point to South Lake Tahoe’s latest contamination site as a perfect example.

The owner of Al’s Chevron Way on the corner of Ski Run Boulevard and U.S. Highway 50 has found MTBE contamination in the groundwater beneath it at levels of 100,000 parts of the additive per billion parts water. A pinhole-sized leak in a “vapor recovery line” is the suspected cause.

“(The station) is fully in compliance, and my understanding is everything is top-of-the-line as far as the underground tanks and the piping system. It’s a new station, and it’s completely within all the new regulations,” said Chuck Curtis of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The contamination has not affected any drinking water wells, but the South Tahoe Public Utility District, which has closed more than a third of its wells because of MTBE contamination, still is concerned.

“It absolutely shows the foolhardiness of MTBE supporters who say all we need to do is fix the tanks,” said Dawn Forsythe, STPUD information officer.

Al Moss, owner of the station, agrees.

“It is very troubling. It’s not only troubling; it’s very scary. I’ve spent lots and lots of money building a facility I thought would be basically bulletproof. Now we get this problem,” Moss said. “Part of the solution to this is we, as a community, have got to get behind this ban of MTBE. (Gasoline compounds such as) hydrocarbons and benzene are a problem, but not as much as MTBE.”

The leak was discovered late last week, and Moss said consultants are in the process of investigating the contamination and establishing a plan to clean it up.

“(Lahontan) won’t fine someone for an accidental release like this if they are being diligent in stopping the leak and cleaning it up,” Curtis said. “Al Moss has been really proactive in immediately letting us know what was going on there.”

MTBE – methyl tertiary butyl ether – is a fuel oxygenate widely used in California. It is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a possible human carcinogen, and has contaminated more than 10,000 groundwater sites in California. A public health goal of 13 parts per billion has been established in California for MTBE. At levels even lower, people often can smell MTBE’s presence in water.

A decision from California Gov. Gray Davis is expected within the next few weeks concerning the future of MTBE in the state. Several state legislators also have introduced bills to ban MTBE, and the city of South Lake Tahoe is considering a local ban if Davis does not take what officials consider appropriate action.

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