Nearly 1,200 MTBE leaks threaten state’s drinking water supply
SACRAMENTO – The fuel additive MTBE has reached 48 wells in public water systems serving hundreds of thousands of people throughout the state, forcing closures or expensive treatments state records show.
Data analyzed from the state Water Resources Control Board and the state Department of Health Services by the San Francisco Chronicle also shows that leaks of the additive from nearly 1,200 underground tank sites threaten the drinking water supply of millions of Californians.
The data do not include tens of thousands of private wells in California and hundreds of thousands nationwide. Such water supplies are not regulated by public agencies and generally are not tested for MTBE unless any holding tanks buried nearby cause concern.
”The most important thing the state should be doing is working on prevention and prioritizing cleanup,” said Anne Happel, a member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s blue ribbon panel on MTBE.
”The regulators should use the data that’s being collected to identify the sites that pose the greatest threat, those closest to drinking water wells,” Happel said.
MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, smells like paint thinner and is too noxious to drink. Once the carcinogen leaks into soil and then groundwater, it moves more quickly than conventional petroleum products, hydrologists say.
State records show the 1,189 underground tank sites leaking MTBE are within 1,000 feet of public supply wells or on vulnerable drinking water aquifers. An additional 1,729 leaking tank sites father away from drinking water wells also could creep closer.
More than 2,500 public drinking water systems that serve 30.5 million – or 90 percent of the state’s population – have been sampled for the carcinogen. Of the 8,311 groundwater sources sampled, 48 contained MTBE. Of the 595 surface water sources, 26 contained MTBE.
Los Angeles County had the most, with 16, centered in Santa Monica, Glendale and Burbank, followed by eight each in San Diego County and El Dorado County. Alameda County led the San Francisco Bay area with five contaminated sources.
A U.S. health advisory suggests people not consume MTBE at greater than 35 parts per billion. The state limits MTBE at 13 parts per billion, and warns water might have taste and odor problems at five parts per billion.
In 1979, the EPA approved MTBE as a 2 percent to 5 percent blend in gasoline to boost octane and make cars have cleaner emissions. In 1996, California used it at 11 percent in a new reformulated gas program.
Then in 1998, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory issued a study estimating 10,000 to 19,000 storage tank sites had contaminated the state’s ground water with the additive.
The next year, after learning that Santa Monica and South Lake Tahoe lost vital wells to MTBE, Gov. Gray Davis issued an executive order phasing it out by 2003.
”MTBE has a potential for being a significant problem,” said Dave Spath, chief of the state health department’s drinking water division. ”It’s only been used a short period of time in large quantities, and maybe this is the tip of the iceberg.”
In the early 1990s, MTBE seeped into a well belonging to Claudia and George Christiansen from a tank at a nearby minimart. Claudia called the county, but they did not test for MTBE at the time.
The Christiansens now are part of the class of small well owners in California who are part of a nationwide lawsuit against 12 major oil companies.
”You can imagine how we felt when they told us what it was in 1999. You think of all the years you’ve been smelling it in the hot water in the shower, washing your dishes in it and wearing it on your clothes,” Claudia said.
”You think what if something will happen to one or the other of us? How will we pay the nursing home bill? What do we do? Let the property go?”
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