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MTBE should have never been produced

Dennis Cocking, district information officer for STPUD

Thank you, Claire Fortier, for acknowledging the District’s tenacity and resolve in our ongoing battle to eliminate MTBE in the Tahoe Basin. We believe were it not for the determination of the District and the help and support of the city of South Lake Tahoe and El Dorado County, the progress that has been made would not have occurred. You also raise a number of questions that the District feels especially qualified to address.

1. Who is going to pay for the clean-up?

The District position is that the responsible parties should pay, not the customers of the District. The District has filed a lawsuit with the Superior Court in San Francisco naming 31 defendants. It is our belief that those responsible – and especially the oil industry – knew, or should have known, the potential for groundwater contamination posed by MTBE, and should pay to get clean water in South Tahoe. The final outcome remains to be seen, but this much we are sure of, the customers of the South Tahoe Public Utility District should not pay one thin dime of the costs.



2. Just how bad is this stuff?

As you pointed out, any chemical that smells and tastes like turpentine at levels as low as 1-2 parts per billion more likely than not is bad for you. For this reason the District will not send water to our customers at detectable levels – at this point in time, two-tenths of one part per billion. When the safety of our community is at stake, the District believes that it is prudent to err on the side of conservatism. Our water supply is safe and will continue to be.



However, putting the health argument aside, from a purely economic standpoint, as a recreational area and resort-based economy, how many of our visitors want to save their money for a vacation in the mountains and drink water that tastes like paint thinner? The “60 Minutes” piece bears out this reality in the case of Glennville, Calif. Do we really need the EPA to spend millions or more and take years to discover a foregone conclusion? This chemical contaminates drinking water in very low concentrations and common sense dictates it is bad.

3. Just how widespread is MTBE?

While MTBE has been in use for quite some time, it was not until the mid-1990s that it began to be used year-round in 11 percent to 12 percent by volume concentrations. It does take a period of time for the initial plume to reach the wells. In addition, no one from the water agencies was looking for the chemical. In the case of South Tahoe, MTBE was essentially discovered incidentally, and, at first, was thought possibly to be an anomaly. As further tests showed increases in concentration, we realized we had a problem. As we learn more about how MTBE behaves, we realize the true severity of the problem. In our opinion, if there are groundwater wells and underground storage tanks and dispensing equipment containing MTBE in close proximity, the question is not if, but when, drinking water is impacted. That is how widespread the problem is.

4. Has the oil industry’s lobby been so successful that it was able to overcome the farmers’ lobby and promote a questionable gasoline refining byproduct over ethanol?

Apparently so. Evidently the oil industry has more money than does the farming industry.

5. Why doesn’t the EPA ban the substance right now and not drag this out any longer?

Good question! I wish I had an answer.

6. Is MTBE really the great threat that many are claiming, or is it the Y2K hoax of the new year?

Yes, MTBE is a great threat to our groundwater. Our hands-on experience has confirmed that this chemical, even in the absence of long-term human studies, poses the potential to foul a previously pure and pristine drinking water supply. Our reputation as a destination resort has always included fresh mountain air, breathtaking scenery, limitless recreation possibilities and pure clean water. The very economic survival of our community is at stake and suggesting that it may be a hoax only serves to diminish the magnitude of the problem.

Finally, in our view, MTBE is a product that should never have been placed into commerce, and it should be removed from gasoline immediately. While studies on long-term human exposure might be scientifically illuminating, waiting for those studies, knowing how this chemical behaves, would be truly irresponsible. South Tahoe already has a big mess to clean up and it is time for the responsible parties to step to the plate.

Dennis Cocking is the District information officer for the South Tahoe Public Utility District.


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