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Year anniversary for MTBE find

by Andy Bourelle

It’s a one-year anniversary of sorts for the South Tahoe Public Utility District.

No one is celebrating, however.

One year ago Monday, the utility district first found the controversial gasoline additive MTBE in two of its wells; one year ago today, the district shut down those two wells.

Twelve months later, 10 more wells are down, the original two wells – Arrowhead Nos. 1 and 2 in Meyers – are being destroyed and two new well construction projects are under way.

“It’s just been the year from hell,” said STPUD information officer Dawn Forsythe.

Crews currently are working at the corner of Arrowhead and Hopi avenues in Meyers. Workers are filling the contaminated wells with cement. A new well is to be drilled at the same location, several hundred feet deeper than current wells. It will access groundwater from a lower aquifer, separated from the contaminated aquifer by what the district calls an aquitard – a non-porous layer of clay which MTBE should not be able to permeate.

The two contaminated wells must be destroyed, because they could act as vertical conduits and bring the MTBE down from the upper aquitard.

Residents in that area have been receiving water pumped in from another nearby well, but the district hopes to have Arrowhead No. 3 operational by Thanksgiving.

The total cost for the project is estimated to exceed $600,000. The capacity of the shut-down wells was 805 gallons per minute, and STPUD hopes to get 1,100 from the new well.

The STPUD Board of Directors approved the work through an emergency action taken in August.

Jim Hoggatt, STPUD construction manager/engineer, said the reason the district has been able to move so quickly on the project is because the infrastructure is already at the location.

STPUD earlier this month approved action to drill a new Gardner Mountain well to help compensate for the loss of capacity from six wells impacted by an MTBE plume suspected of coming from the “Y”‘s USA Gas Station.

That well will need to be drilled in a new location, probably on U.S. Forest Service land, and its installation likely will cost more than $1 million.

Hoggatt said a geophysical survey is being completed on the area. When the results are back, STPUD can find a potential location, start the permit process and drill the well.

Hoggatt said STPUD wants to drill the well before the end of the year, in order to have the winter season to design the building and infrastructure needed to accommodate it.

Completion is scheduled for June 1999.

The costs to the district were not budgeted for, and STPUD is seeking reimbursement from the Kuehl fund, a California drinking water emergency response fund.

By state law, the district is required to aggressively pursue reimbursement action against the parties deemed responsible for the contamination.

For the new Gardner Mountain well, that is USA owner USA Petroleum out of Agoura Hills, Calif.; for the Arrowhead well, that is Meyers Beacon owner J.E. Tveten Corporation.

The J.E. Tveten Corporation currently faces an $84,000 fine from the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board for its failure to comply with its cleanup and abatement order. Lahontan has taken over remediation of the site, having obtained about $300,000 from the state board for the cleanup.

USA faces a $292,500 fine but now has submitted an acceptable cleanup plan to Lahontan. One of STPUD’s wells contaminated by the plume may be used by USA to “pump and treat” the contaminated groundwater.

MTBE – methyl tertiary butyl ether – is a gasoline additive used extensively in California. It is considered a possible cancer-causing agent by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. At low levels, MTBE-contaminated water smells and tastes like turpentine.

Status of wells impacted by MTBE

Total number of wells: 34

Wells shut down because of MTBE contamination: Eight

Wells shut down because of nearby MTBE plumes: Four

Percentage of wells shut down because of MTBE: 35 percent

Percentage of potential water production lost: 17 percent

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

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