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South Tahoe utility demands action on fuel leak

Patrick McCartney

South Tahoe water officials say they have run out of patience with regional water-quality regulators over fuel contamination beneath a South Lake Tahoe service station that has persisted for more than a dozen years.

On Monday, the general manager of the South Tahoe Public Utility District delivered a letter outlining the district’s concerns to the head of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.

District officials said Tuesday that high levels of a fuel additive found in monitoring wells near the Terrible Herbst service station in the Al Tahoe area has alarmed them.

“We don’t want to cause undue alarm; we have not detected any (of the additive) in our main drinking water wells,” said Chris Strohm, the chair of the district’s board of directors. “But for the Lahontan agency to let this go on, it’s like letting a sewage spill go for 13 years.”

Harold Springer, Lahontan’s executive officer, said the cleanup of soil beneath the service station had been under way for years, but the latest monitoring data will prompt additional action.

“Obviously, there’s something going on here that has to be looked at,” Springer said. “Either something is moving (the additive) around, or we have a totally new leak.”

Springer said the board will ask the owner of Terrible Herbst and Exxon, the former owner of the neighboring Muffler Palace, to perform more remedial work.

But the action is unlikely to mollify utility district managers, who accuse Lahontan of applying a different standard to sewage spills than to the long-lasting fuel contamination.

“From all appearances, the Lahontan Regional Board seems to be afraid to tackle the large corporate interests and prefers to set its sights on an easier and financially limited public district,” wrote Robert Baer, the district’s general manager, in the letter to Lahontan.

Baer referred to the $50,000 in civil penalties the Lahontan staff recommended its board level against the utility district for spills of treated wastewater last fall during tests of the district’s new wastewater export line.

“Where are the priorities?” asked Strohm. “It’s not our job to compel Terrible Herbst, the Muffler Palace or Exxon to clean up the site; that’s Lahontan’s job.”

In March, the district received data from monitoring wells at the Muffler Palace that showed a sharp rise in MTBE, the oxygenated fuel additive that is now part of all gasoline in California.

Of concern is how close the plume of contamination is to the district’s Al Tahoe well that supplies 60 percent of the district’s water. The Al Tahoe well, and a recently constructed backup well, are downhill from the contamination site. Pumping from the water well could increase the flow of contaminants toward the district’s well, said Rick Hydrick, the district’s manager of water operations.

Hydrick added that the district has lost patience with Lahontan, especially since Lahontan informed Terrible Herbst 11 months ago that the corporate owner would be “on a tight leash.” Springer conceded that the water board has not received the MTBE tests from Terrible Herbst it asked for.

“We asked them to measure MTBE. They didn’t. Have we followed up? Not until now,” Springer said.


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