Nevada doesn’t have MTBE problem – yet
Knock on wood before you drink that water, Nevada.
While state environmental officials say the Silver State doesn’t have a serious problem with MTBE, Lake Tahoe officials now accustomed to dealing with the groundwater pollutant say it may be just a matter of time.
In a story that may appear in newspapers across the West today, The Associated Press is reporting that the fuel additive that has contaminated more than 14,000 sites in California “isn’t a big problem in Nevada’s groundwater so far.”
Dennis Cocking, spokesman for a Tahoe water agency that has closed more than a third of its wells because of MTBE, says “so far” are the key words.
“We tell people, if you have underground storage tanks and groundwater wells anywhere close in proximity, it’s a matter of time before a problem presents itself,” said Cocking, information officer for the South Tahoe Public Utility District.
Chuck Curtis, chief of the underground storage tank unit of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, agrees.
“It is a very large problem in California and specifically in South Lake Tahoe,” Curtis said. “Nevada is not entirely out of the woods. Although they’re not required to have MTBE, they typically have 1 to 3 percent MTBE in their gas. There’s a station in Cave Rock, on the Nevada side, that has had an MTBE release that contaminated ground and surface water.”
Doug Zimmerman, chief of the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection says his office has been watching for MTBE but most of Nevada gets drinking water from deep aquifers and that the additive apparently has not reached them.
“I don’t see a widespread serious problem,” he said. “We’re trying to get it before it becomes a problem.”
There’s still no official federal standard setting a maximum allowable amount of the compound in drinking water. But Zimmerman said his staff, Las Vegas, Clark County and Washoe County are watching for it anyway, using a drinking water advisory standard of 20 to 40 parts of MTBE per billion parts water.
That standard, however, is far more lenient than what California uses for MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether. California has a taste and odor standard of 5 parts per billion, and the state is considering a health standard of about 13 parts per billion.
While its specific health effects are still unknown, because it makes water taste and smell like turpentine, low levels of contamination render water undrinkable.
STPUD has a policy of not serving any MTBE-contaminated water, no matter how trace the amount of pollutants.
Nevada’s Zimmerman also rejected suggestions that MTBE is extremely difficult to remove from the water supply.
However, California’s Curtis, who deals with MTBE-contamination issues daily, disagreed, saying MTBE-contaminated water is difficult to remove from the ground because it moves quicker than other gasoline compounds. And, Curtis said, once the water is out of the ground, the “technology for removing MTBE is costly and inefficient.”
Some South Shore gas stations already have spent millions of dollars to clean up MTBE contamination.
One of the reasons STPUD has had such a problem with MTBE is because the utility’s wells are shallow. When underground gas storage systems leak or spills happen, MTBE plumes can reach the wells more quickly. Therefore, district officials often have said STPUD’s problems have likely been discovered earlier than in other areas. Places with deep wells may have MTBE in the groundwater, just not at depths that would contaminate wells yet.
Cocking said Nevada’s many rural areas, with fuel storage facilities far from well sites, probably will be safe. However, cities where gas stations are often near wells probably won’t be so lucky.
“When you get into a metropolitan area, I think you’re going to have the same problems that exist here,” Cocking said.
Lahontan’s Curtis said deep wells aren’t immune to contamination, either.
“It’s not just a problem in shallow groundwater,” Curtis said. “Santa Monica has deep groundwater wells, but MTBE has moved down and contaminated those deep aquifers as well.”
California Gov. Gray Davis last year ordered MTBE’s use phased out by the end of 2002. He also ordered oil companies to work with the state to get MTBE-free gas to Tahoe earlier. Now Tahoe is one of the few areas in California receiving mostly MTBE-free fuel.
Tahoe and Santa Monica have been the focus of much of the MTBE debate.
In Santa Monica, hit by MTBE contamination in 1995, the city of 92,000 has shut down at least half of its wells and is now importing most of its water from Southern California’s main wholesaler. The city believes the clean-up could cost $100 million.
– The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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