MTBE reaches Alpine County
The South Tahoe Public Utility District’s problems with the controversial fuel additive MTBE have spread to Alpine County.
The district – which provides sewer and water service to most of South Shore’s residents – discovered MTBE this month in Harvey Place, a 100-acre irrigation reservoir in eastern Alpine County. The district transports its recycled water through a pipeline 26 miles to the reservoir, where the water is used to irrigate more than 2,000 acres of ranch land.
The levels of MTBE – methyl tertiary butyl ether – detected in the reservoir are below 1 part of the additive per billion parts water, well below any state or federal health guidelines.
Still, officials are concerned.
“One of our biggest concerns is what does this do to our beef cattle – and the hay produced with this in the ground,” said Herman Zellmer, the chair of the Alpine County Board of Supervisors. “What happens then? That’s a big concern of our ranchers.”
How did the MTBE get there? It’s a long story.
Several South Shore gas stations have plumes of MTBE coming from their facilities. In their clean-up efforts, the stations pump contaminated water out of the ground, treat it with a carbon filtration system and pump the clean water into the sewer system.
However, the MTBE can have “breakthroughs” in the filtration system.
Lisa Dernbach, associate engineering geologist of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, said it is sometimes a “guessing game” as to when a breakthrough can occur.
“It’s like an oil filter in a car. It only has a certain amount of life,” she said. “At some point it just won’t filter.”
Dernbach said several South Shore remediation efforts – including those at the USA Gas Station at the “Y,” South Lake Tahoe’s Beacon and Tahoe Tom’s – have experienced breakthroughs.
It is avoidable, however. Lahontan has been in charge of the clean-up efforts at the Meyers Beacon for months, and the board – using an air-stripping tower rather than a carbon-filtration system – has had no problems.
The gas stations with remediation efforts under way are required by STPUD to obtain a special permit to release the treated water into its sewer system. Because of the recent problems, STPUD will be more strict in its permitting process, according to STPUD Information Officer Dawn Forsythe.
“Double treatment, better testing, more frequent testing,” she said. “They’ve got to prove to us their systems can adequately remove the MTBE.”
Dernbach said Lahontan officials are looking into whether the agency has the authority to fine the parties responsible for the breakthroughs.
“We’re fully supportive of the district and all the regulations they are putting on their pump-and-treat systems,” Dernbach said.
In recent summers, several researchers have found traces of MTBE at various levels in Lake Tahoe. Those levels decline and disappear in the fall. STPUD officials hope the results will be similar for Harvey Place, and the MTBE will have dissipated before summer when the ranchers use the water.
“We’re going to be watching it very closely over the winter months,” Forsythe said.
Although Alpine County is concerned about the problem, Zellmer said county officials don’t blame the district.
“I don’t think there is anyone upset with (STPUD),” he said.
The Alpine County Board of Supervisors plans to hold a public hearing on the issue Tuesday morning, and Zellmer said the board likely will petition California legislators for a ban of the additive.
“Another concern we have is not just for Alpine County. This is a problem statewide,” Zellmer said. “Our concern is we need to stop (the use of MTBE). There is no way it can be used in our gasoline without being a danger to someone somewhere.”
MTBE is a synthetic chemical oxygenated fuel additive used extensively in California gasoline to reduce air pollution. However, it is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a possible cancer-causing agent. California has set a taste and odor threshold of 5 parts per billion for MTBE-contaminated water, because it smells and tastes like turpentine.
STPUD’s water system supplies about 30,000 people through about 12,500 connections, and at times, because of tourism, the total population served is as high as 60,000. Since September 1997, STPUD has closed more than one-third of its drinking water wells because of the threat of MTBE contamination.
STPUD required water-usage restrictions for much of the 1998 summer. To date, MTBE-related costs for the district are about $1.5 million. STPUD filed a lawsuit in November 1998 against several major oil companies and local gasoline providers. It could take up to two years before the suit goes to trial.
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