Supes vote county MTBE-free |

Supes vote county MTBE-free

Rick Chandler

MTBE, the microscopic fuel additive with the nasty disposition, has been sent packing by El Dorado County.

Alarmed by the spread of MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) in the county in general and the Lake Tahoe area in particular, the county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to make El Dorado County an MTBE “Free Zone,” banning the oxegenate in county jurisdictions. MTBE, an additive which helps gasoline burn more efficiently, is responsible for the closures of 12 drinking water wells in the South Lake Tahoe area over the past year due to leaks from gasoline station storage tanks and pipelines.

“(MTBE) is a huge problem, and what we have seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Fifth District Supervisor John Upton at the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday. “I think that it’s important for us to take the lead on this issue, because the problem is more pronounced in Lake Tahoe than in other places. But soon, everyone will feel its effects.”

But how would the county enforce such a ban? The answers are not clear. Even with the county’s ban, local distributors would still have to somehow come up with MTBE-free gasoline, and that could be difficult.

The South Lake Tahoe City Council voted recently to ban MTBE – if other governing agencies do not do so by April 1999. But the county’s stance is firmer, demanding that the Federal Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board immediately order the permanent removal of MTBE from all gasoline supplies not under city jurisdiction.

That’s particularly significant for areas of Lake Tahoe such as Meyers, which has had several well closures already.

Fourth District Supervisor Walt Shultz, who authored the resolution, is galled that nothing has yet been done on a state or federal level to ban the additive.

“This is serious; it seems like we’re sitting here fiddling while Rome burns,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon the elected leadership of this county to get the ball rolling (on a statewide ban).”

Shultz is particularly miffed that, due to a federal provision of the Clean Air Act, El Dorado County is required to use oxygenates such as MTBE in its gas supply. Yet other jurisdictions – such as the San Francisco Bay Area – are exempt.

“They let the Bay Area off, to avoid public pressure,” Shultz said. “After all, there are a lot of votes down there. It’s an example of how absurd the MTBE situation is getting in California.”

There are fuel additives available that burn as clean as MTBE, but don’t actually contain the water-polluting properties. But areas such as Sacramento and El Dorado County cannot purchase it due to federal law that mandates the use of oxygenates such as MTBE in the state’s smoggiest places. The law doesn’t specifically require MTBE – other additives such as ethanol work just as well – but refineries have chosen it as the most convenient to use.

“If the Bay Area somehow got exempt, we should look into that process,” said Second District Supervisor Ray Nutting. “The whole thing seems really inconsistent.”

Upton is concerned that the federal government is ignoring Tahoe’s problem, despite the fact that MTBE seems to be moving faster through the area’s water table than anywhere else in the state.

“The problem is real visible (in Tahoe) because of the consistency of the ground here,” Upton said. “The ground (in Tahoe) doesn’t suck this stuff up, so it just moves; mainly toward the lake. In other areas, MTBE is being sucked up like a sponge. But that sponge is going to fill up sooner or later, and then we’ll see a huge problem throughout the state.

“The government has made Tahoe expendable on this issue, and that ticks me off.”

Also Tuesday, the board passed a consideration to purchase a snowblower for the South Shore Removal Zone. The board authorized the purchase of the snow blower from a company in Idaho for $111,969 – and that’s a huge discount, according to Nutting.

“What we have here is a wonderful bargain, where we got the equipment for one-third of the price it should have cost,” he said. “We really got a deal.”

The board also postponed a recommendation to close escrow on a purchase of land on behalf of the American River Conservancy’s Phase II Ecological Preserve Program, which is an effort to protect endangered native plants. A subcommittee will be formed to study the issue further, and the board will take action in one week.

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