Utility forced to turn off well
The South Tahoe Public Utility District has detected trace amounts of the fuel additive MTBE in two of its wells for the first time since 1998.
The district shut down its Country Club Drive in Meyers well on Tuesday once tests confirmed the fuel additive was present at 3 parts per billion. That level is way below state health standards,13 ppb, but the district shut the well down anyway because it has a zero-detect policy.
Detections of MTBE at the second well, located along Bakersfield Street, are hit and miss. On average, the amount of the additive detected in the well is still acceptable under the district’s zero-detect policy, said Dennis Cocking, district spokesman.
The district’s water system is interconnected. Homes in an area may be served with water drawn from four or five wells. The Bakersfield well pumps 1,500 gallons a minute, while the Country Club well pumps about 200. The district will only pump water from its Bakersfield well when it’s “absolutely necessary,” Cocking said.
The district will tap MTBE settlement funds, rather than customers, to pay for treatment. The cost will be about $2 million, Cocking said. Oil companies paid the district $69 million because MTBE contaminated water at South Shore. Cocking said the district netted about $35 million, which will be used to drill new wells and set up MTBE clean-up treatment systems.
The district suspects the MTBE plume that affected the wells originated from the Meyers Shell, where a pipe broke several years ago and released a large amount of gasoline into the ground, said Rick Hydrick, manager of water operations at the district.
Despite the detection of MTBE, the district stressed that its water is safe because it has some of the strictest standards in the country. The contamination at the Country Club well is so minuscule it would be like putting a third of a drop of MTBE in an Olympic-size swimming pool, Hydrick said.
District officials said the contamination issue is directly linked to water conservation. Shutting off the Country Club well will further strap its water supplies and make water conservation measures critical.
“We’re still having trouble with people believing this is a real problem,” said Hydrick, of water restrictions implemented by the district at the end of June.
MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, began to be used widely in gasoline by the mid-1990s to decrease auto emissions. In 1997, contamination eliminated use of 12 of the district’s 34 wells. By 2000, MTBE was banned at the basin.
Since then, the demand for water has increased primarily because home and business owners are doing more landscaping. That’s left the district strapped to meet water demand in the summer.
The district tests all 22 of its well monthly, quarterly or annually depending on how close each is located to known plumes of MTBE. But the positive test at Country Club came sooner than expected.
“We’ve been waiting for this to happen since we first went through this in 1997,” Cocking said. “I think it’s inevitable with the way MTBE behaves that we’re going to get some surprises. It’s a diabolical chemical.”
The district tested at Country Club this month after Sally Kilgour, a Meyers resident, heard an advertisement on the radio that asked anyone who believed they might be ill from ingesting MTBE to come forward.
Kilgour hadn’t been feeling well and asked the district to come out and test her tap on Yucatan Street. It detected 2 ppb in her tap water. No one knows how even trace amounts of MTBE might affect human health because no studies of any substance have been completed, said Hydrick and Cocking.
A public meeting is scheduled Sunday at 4 p.m. at Tahoe Paradise Park in Meyers to let residents know what they can do to protect themselves against MTBE. Officials at South Tahoe Public Utility District will be at the meeting, so will Jeanne Breit, a Carson City resident who paid for the radio message regarding MTBE.
“What I need is for people to give their medical history,” Breit said. “I’m going for a grant from the government to help defray the cost of removing chemicals from our water.”
Breit, who has thyroid problems, said she moved out of the Lake Tahoe Basin because of MTBE. She drinks distilled water in Carson.
“We’re concerned about our customers as much as they are concerned,” Cocking said. “We’d like for them to share whatever information they may have and we’ll share whatever information we may have.”
The district is in the process of drilling two wells. Another one just came online on Glenwood Way. An MTBE treatment system on the district’s Arrowhead well cost $1.4 million to install. It has been treating water with success since April 2002.
— Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at email@example.com
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A $20,000 fine and permanent ban could eventually await those operating vacation home rentals in Douglas County without a permit.