Senator wants to expedite MTBE’s elimination |

Senator wants to expedite MTBE’s elimination

by Andy Bourelle

A California lawmaker and longtime opponent of MTBE introduced two bills Friday into the Senate which he believes will help alleviate problems relating to the controversial fuel additive.

Sen. Dick Mountjoy, R-Arcadia, said one bill would speed up California’s phaseout of MTBE and the other would provide money for a comprehensive study of ethanol, the No. 1 alternative to MTBE for gas that requires an oxygenate.

“We cannot continue to pour gallon after gallon of MTBE into our gas tanks,” Mountjoy said. “We are playing Russian roulette with our water and our health.”

While the current statewide phaseout of MTBE would end the oxygenate’s use by 2003, Mountjoy’s Senate Bill 1971 proposes to put a stop to it by Dec. 31. The second bill, SB 1972, would direct the University of California to conduct a study of ethanol.

The federal Clean Air Act requires cleaner-burning reformulated gasoline be sold in areas with bad air quality problems, including Los Angeles and Sacramento. The Act prescribes a formula for reformulated gasoline, including the requirement that it have at least 2 percent oxygen. In response to the requirement, refiners have primarily used the oxygenate MTBE, especially in California where MTBE comprises about 11 percent of the state’s gas.

Efforts are under way to try to repeal the 2-percent part of the Act. Without that change, ethanol will be used increasingly as MTBE is phased out.

Many California cities and especially the south shore of Lake Tahoe have been victims of MTBE contamination.

Gov. Gray Davis last year ordered the use of MTBE be phased out of the state, and he directed the California Energy Commission to work with the oil industry to get MTBE out of the Tahoe area sooner. Tahoe now is one of the few places in the state getting mostly MTBE-free fuel.

“Locally, there are still several gas stations serving MTBE, and some of them are situated where, if there was a spill, it would still impact district wells,” said Bob Baer, the utility’s general manager. “Just because we’re 80 percent MTBE-free, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. We still need to get MTBE out of the state and the basin.”

As far as using ethanol as the new oxygenate of choice, Mountjoy said state and federal officials should have learned their lesson with MTBE, which was not studied in depth before it became a major component of gas.

“MTBE taught us that we must study a chemical before we pour it into our gasoline,” Mountjoy said. “Science must precede marketing.”

Baer agreed.

“Let’s certainly not make the same mistake,” he said.

It was earlier legislation introduced by Mountjoy that led to the governor’s decision last year on MTBE. A 1998 bill introduced by Mountjoy was originally for a ban of MTBE but was amended by the legislature. The version of the bill that passed called for an in-depth scientific study of the additive, a series of public hearings and a prompt but thought-out decision by the governor, all of which happened in 1998 and 1999.

MTBE – methyl tertiary butyl ether – has created problems for drinking water supplies because, when there is a fuel leak or spill, MTBE travels much faster in groundwater than other gas compounds. It breaks down slowly, and it is difficult and expensive to clean up.

It is a suspected human carcinogen, and at low levels of contamination it makes water smell and taste like turpentine, rendering it undrinkable.

Ethanol is a known toxin and moves more quickly in groundwater than MTBE does; however, it breaks down in the ground faster and is easier to clean up.

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