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November 2000

Trailer Park Water Polluted With MTBE

By Jim Scanlon

The Redwood Homes Trailer Park in Novato which serves forty two low income units with a population of approximately 100 residents, many of whom are disabled, shut down it's private water system early in October when high levels of MTBE, a dangerous gasoline additive were found in water samples. Water tank trucks supplied water until a long planned connection to North Marin County Water District's network was finally completed on October 23.

Methyl-tert-butyl ether (MTBE) levels of 92 parts per billion were found in the water from the private well which served the trailer park for over thirty years (13 parts per billion is the state limit). The chemical is a byproduct of petroleum refineries and has been used as an additive to gasoline to help reduce hydrocarbon emissions and improve California's air quality. Unfortunately the cure proved worse than the disease.

When the additive was first introduced, consumers, especially those living at higher elevations, complained about the smell of emissions from their cars, but the real problem surfaced later when it was found that MTBE was highly soluble in water and that levels in reservoirs and in the water table were rising rapidly. The additive is a known carcinogenic substance (cancer causing) in animals and is presumed to be dangerous for humans consumption and exposure.

The trailer park's well is an old one, described as shallow and under surface water influence. It had been upgraded years ago to prevent the intrusion of organic matter which discolored the water running out of the tap. It was presumably contaminated in the same way others were throughout the state and nation---from leaking gasoline storage tanks at a nearby gas station or from a large scale user.

There had been complaints dating back at least three years about a fuel taste to the water and recently, residents had been advised by the management not to drink the water.

The managers of the park were required to test water samples regularly for coliform and fecal bacteria and county records show these invariably proved negative. It was not immediately apparent why no testing was done for MTBE previously. Testing done in 1995 reveals detectable levels of Tetrachloroethylene and Trichloroethylene.

Trailer parks such as this one are subject to state rules regarding water and sewer distribution systems and whereas the state delegates the responsibility for water quality to the counties that is not completely the case with trailer parks.

The changeover of the water system from the problematic wells to North Marin's system came just in time. With the encouragement of the State Department of Health, North Marin got involved with the owner of the trailer park in applying for a low interest loan from a "revolving fund" set up by the state and federal government to provide loans to small antiquated, failing water systems. In this case the cost of connecting to North Marin comes to about $100,000. The residents get good, safe water and if and when the owner sells his property, the balance of the loan goes back to the state to be lent to someone else.

As residents were not aware of the exact nature of the problem with their water until quite recently, it remains to be seen if health problems, if any, will be linked to the contamination. At present, the worst seems to be over. However, a large "For Sale" sign standing next to the entrance of the park is an ominous sign for affordable housing in Marin.

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