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MTBE A BRIEF OVERVIEW


MTBE is an acronym for Methyl-tertiary-butyl-ether. It is a gasoline additive that has been in wide use since the Clean Air Act of 1990 mandated that MTBE or other oxygenates be added to gasoline. Most oil companies choose to use MTBE and according to the State of California's paper entitled "Public Health Goal For Methyl-tertiary-butyl-ether in Drinking Water" since 1997 it has become the second most heavily produced chemical in the United States (roughly 16 gallons per capita is produced each year)! According to Water officials interviewed on 60-Minutes, one cup of MTBE (about the same amount found in each gallon of gasoline) can contaminate five million (5,000,000) gallons of water and make it undrinkable. Unfortunately MTBE is now turning up in wells, underground aquifers, lakes and reservoirs. 60-Minutes' Steve Kroft revealed that MTBE is now the second most common water contaminant in the country. One internal study conducted by Chevron discovered that MTBE had contaminated the ground water at 80 percent of the sites the company tested. Remarkably, there are no requirements for local governments, municipalities and water providers to test for the presence of MTBE contamination.

In March of 1996, the city of Santa Monica California discovered that MTBE had contaminated 7 of its 11 wells. The water in these wells took on a strong chemical odor and simply became undrinkable. The wells were closed and today Santa Monica spends about $3 million dollars per year to obtain water from the Colorado River. Since then, the state of California has identified 10,000 sites where MTBE is present in groundwater. MTBE has now been detected in the ground water of 49 states including major cities such as Atlanta, Albuquerque, Dallas, Denver, Hartford, Las Vegas, Long Island and others. In South Lake Tahoe California, MTBE was discovered in the lake, the groundwater and in a dozen wells. One third of the city's water was shut down. They are now suing 12 local gas stations, 12 major oil companies and several manufacturers of MTBE according to Victor Sher, an attorney representing the city. 60-Minutes' Kroft conveyed that in New Jersey, it has been found in 65 public drinking water supplies and in Long Island New York, MTBE has leaked from more than 400 gasoline storage tanks and is now being detected in more than 100 public water supplies. Glennville, California had some of the highest levels of MTBE ever recorded in drinking water. One well tested at 20,000 parts per billion, 1,000 times greater than the maximum level the EPA is now recommending. Today, Glennville has become a virtual ghost town. Recently, 500,000 gallons of MTBE laden gasoline was spilled in the Dallas area contaminating 30% of its water supply.

Dr. Bernard Goldstein, a toxicologist and the director of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute in New Jersey says, "anyone who looked at the chemical properties of MTBE would have known it was going to pollute water". He explained that the oxygen in MTBE makes it more soluble in water than almost anything else found in gasoline. It moves rapidly in groundwater once it gets spilled. In a report issued by Dr. Peter Garrett of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and two of his colleagues stated that "MTBE moved further and faster in groundwater and was more difficult to clean up than any other contaminate in gasoline". The problem is that MTBE doesn't break down. Craig Perkins, director of public works for Santa Monica stated "What we found was that it was behaving much differently than contaminants that-that (sic) we had tracked in the past. It was moving through the-the (sic) groundwater into the wells much more quickly. On one of our wells, the-it (sic) essentially doubled within one-week period".

A 1987 EPA memo states "Known cases of drinking water contamination have been reported in four states, affecting 20,000 people. It's possible that this problem could rapidly mushroom due to leaking underground storage tanks. The problem of groundwater contamination will increase as the proportion of MTBE in gasoline increases." The Clean Air Act of 1990, which mandated the use of oxygenated fuel additives, was passed three years later. Bob Perciasepe, an assistant administrator of the EPA told 60-Minutes "any optimism anybody had that we could manage the potential problem has not come to fruition, and before this becomes a national crisis, before this gets worse, we need to change the way we make clean-burning gasoline". The Environmental Protection Agency recently said it would move to ban the substance after recent studies showed it contaminates water supplies across the country. MTBE can cause water to take on a chemical odor similar to that of turpentine or paint thinner. A study conducted in Italy on lab animals showed that ingesting high doses of MTBE caused leukemia, lymphoma and testicular cancer. MTBE has not been adequately tested for toxicity in humans and scientific data of its long-term human health effects is sadly lacking.

 

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