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Tahoe’s drinking supply reported safe

Michael Schneider

A representative of South Lake Tahoe’s water suppliers assured the City Council Tuesday the city’s drinking water does not contain any potentially hazardous fuel additives.

To keep the water clean, the South Tahoe Public Utility District closed seven wells, three that were contaminated and four that were considered threatened.

Rick Hydrick, operations manager for STPUD, told the council the seven wells were tested for the fuel additive MTBE.



All the threatened and contaminated wells have levels of MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, that are far below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standards, as well as California advisory levels, Hydrick said.

MTBE is one of the oxygen-rich fuel additives the EPA in 1991 ordered for use in smoggy areas to reduce automobile emissions. It currently has no known health effects to humans, but water district representatives said there is some evidence that at high levels of lifelong exposure, the agent could cause cancer. Respiratory complaints also have been reported by many people exposed to the additive.



The government allows MTBE levels of 20 parts per billion. The most contaminated Tahoe well, Arrowhead No. 1, has only 3.3 ppb. Hydrick said people can smell the fuel additive at between 5 to 10 ppb, although it is not currently believed these levels pose any health threat.

He said no one is sure how the MTBE may be getting into wells.

The fuel additive has several characteristics that make it a natural threat to wells, lakes and streams. It is water-soluble, and percolates soils at the same rate as water. It resists biodegradation and is difficult to remove from water. It also smells and tastes bad and is detected at very low concentrations.

The Tahoe district pumps 100 percent of its water, about 14 million gallons every day, from its 36 wells, and last year spent more than $500,000 on MTBE detection and control efforts.

In mid-March, a motorist, after filling up his vehicle’s gas tank, drove away from the station without removing the nozzle from the vehicle. The pump began leaking MTBE-treated gasoline after the accident and the breach was not plugged until the next afternoon.

At first, Virginia Huber, the Tahoe division manager of the El Dorado County Environmental Management Department who responded to the accident to contain the spill, said only a small amount of gas leaked into the storm drain on U.S. Highway 50.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Hydrick said hundreds of gallons actually were spilled.

“The lesson to be learned here? Don’t leave the pump in your car,” Hydrick said, saying sooner or later the city may run out of wells.

“I can only turn off so many wells before we’re out of water,” Hydrick said. “Then we will need to drill new wells.”

He said private shallow wells in the region may be vulnerable as well as South Tahoe wells. Businesses which operate on private wells, such as many area motels, are not required to test for MTBE since those who use their water only do so for short periods of time.

It is not known if private wells in the region have been contaminated.

Huber and Hydrick said there seems to be a push in recent legislation to stop the use of MTBE. Other gas additives can reduce auto emissions, but MTBE’s cost and its production by oil companies make it the most attractive to oil refiners.

Huber said there are bills in legislation now which would remove MTBE from gasoline.

“It seems like that would be a lot cheaper than what we’re going through now,” Council Member Tom Davis said.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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