Oller introduces bill to study MTBE | TahoeDailyTribune.com
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Oller introduces bill to study MTBE

Lake Tahoe’s representative in the California Assembly introduced a bill Tuesday that would require action about MTBE that really hasn’t been done yet – a comprehensive study of its health effects.

While officials from the MTBE problem-plagued South Tahoe Public Utility District are pleased with the effort, they hope the bill doesn’t slow down the fight already under way to get MTBE out of gasoline.

“I don’t think the results are going to be, ‘Great, put it on your cereal every morning,'” said Dennis Cocking, STPUD information officer. “While the information should be useful, the state and EPA should not be waiting on the results. We know we have a problem we need to deal with now.”



Thomas “Rico” Oller, R-San Andreas, introduced Assembly Bill 1812 Tuesday, which would require the state’s Department of Health Services and Water Resources Control Board to jointly study and report on the health effects of MTBE leaking into groundwater, lakes and streams.

“The meddlers in the federal and state environmental bureaucracies forced MTBE upon us, and now our water is polluted,” Oller said. “This is typical of heavy-handed envirocrats who issue mandates first and think about consequences later. Our bill will require them to research the harmful health effects MTBE is having on us and our children.”



MTBE – methyl tertiary butyl ether – is a gasoline additive used widely in the United States and especially in California.

It has contaminated as many as 14,000 sites in California, and Gov. Gray Davis has ordered it phased out of use by the end of 2002.

A European study in the mid-1990s linked MTBE to cancer in mice. The danger to humans is still unknown. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a possible human carcinogen.

Officials from STPUD, which has closed more than a third of its wells because of MTBE contamination, say the problem exists regardless of the health effects. MTBE renders water undrinkable at low levels of contamination because of its turpentine-like taste and odor.

“You can even make the assumption it’s not highly toxic,” Cocking said. “But if it makes water smell and taste bad at low levels, and you run the risk of soiling your water supply, you need to get rid of the stuff.”

MTBE has two characteristics that make it more problematic than other gasoline compounds: its ability to spread quickly in groundwater and its permanency. Fuel components such as benzene, a known carcinogen, will adhere to the soil, traveling slowly. But MTBE permeates the ground at the same rate as water. It also has a half life of 26 years, which means it will exist in groundwater for more than 100 years.

It’s expensive to clean up, too. Some South Shore station’s cleanup efforts, while far from complete, have already cost millions of dollars.

Another part of the governor’s order, made March 1999, was that the state work with oil companies to provide MTBE-free fuel to the Tahoe area sooner.

Now almost all of South Shore’s gas stations are MTBE-free.

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An exchange broadcast on CBS’ “60 Minutes” between anchorman Steve Kroft and Bob Perciasepe, assistant administrator of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

Kroft: “Have there been studies done on the health effects of MTBE in the drinking water?”

Perciasepe: “Not enough. Not enough. But …”

Kroft: “But any? I mean, have any been done?”

Perciasepe: “I’m not aware of any specific studies that have been done on that.”

Kroft: “What are you doing about the problem? Right now. … What’s been done?”

Perciasepe: “Not enough.”


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