New strategy to ban additive in state |

New strategy to ban additive in state

Patrick McCartney

A California legislator has introduced a bill that would allow gasoline refiners to drop a controversial fuel additive from the fuel they sell if tests show the gasoline produces low emissions.

The additive, MTBE or methyl tertiary butyl ether, has been found in a number of drinking water sources and recreational waters. The South Tahoe Public Utility District has discovered the additive in two wells, closing one well briefly, and the gasoline constituent has been found in Lake Tahoe and Donner Lake.

The bill, filed Thursday, is the latest assault on the oxygenated additive MTBE by Sen. Dick Mountjoy, who last year passed a bill requiring a yearlong study of the additive’s effect on water quality and public health.

“The use of MTBE was a tragic mistake and we must act swiftly to avoid further damage to our water or our people,” Mountjoy said.

Opposition to the additive has increased since 1991, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered the wintertime use of oxygen-rich additives to gasoline in areas with high carbon monoxide levels in the atmosphere. California’s Air Resources Board ordered the use of oxygenated additives full time in all of California in early 1996.

While the choice of additives is left to the oil industry, MTBE is the most common additive, partly because of cost and partly due to the ease with which it can be mixed with gasoline. Also, California’s Air Resources Board approved a regulation that made the use of ethanol, the principal alternative to MTBE, impractical for refiners to use.

While most early criticism of MTBE focused on respiratory complaints and other health concerns, the ether-based compound has come under increasing fire in California because of the feared threat it poses to drinking water supplies. The additive is extremely soluble in water and difficult to remove once it dissolves.

Mountjoy’s bill would prohibit the use of any additive in California gasoline that is soluble in water, unless approved by the state Legislature.

“I believe the decision to place toxins in our fuel should be discussed openly, publicly and fully,” Mountjoy said in announcing the filing of Senate Bill 1926. “We cannot permit another MTBE-type disaster by allowing bureaucrats the ability to authorize such chemical use.”

Last month, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation that would exempt California from the federal rule requiring the use of oxygenates. Like the Mountjoy bill, Feinstein would allow gasoline refiners to omit the additives, if emissions are sufficiently low.

The bills rely on a study by the oil and automobile industry, which concluded that California’s reformulated gasoline is effective at reducing automobile emissions whether or not it includes MTBE.

Mountjoy’s bill in the last legislative session requires the state to conduct a health study on the additive, and gives the governor the authority to take action, including a prohibition of the additive, if the University of California study determines the additive poses a threat.

The new bill also would make the manufacturers and users of MTBE liable for the costs of health care and the cleanup of MTBE contamination from water supplies. It would also provide funds for the testing of privately owned water wells.

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