The Coastal Post - February, 1999

Water Horror Grows With MTBE In Gas
By Carol Sterritt

In late summer of 1977, two factions spent hours battling it out in hearings before the California State Senate. In favor of continuing the gasoline additive MTBE, lobbyists from big oil companies presented the usual extremely misleading arguments. Concerned scientists, doctors, and researchers argued most persuasively against MTBE. State Senator Mountjoy (R-Santa Monica) hoped to see passage of a ban on MTBE. He was not successful in achieving that hope.

Today we are at a crossroads. The tremendous and significant damage that the anti-MTBE crowd tried to warn against is now apparent. Fully one-third of the drinking wells in the Lake Tahoe region are contaminated by the additive. In what will no doubt be a historic lawsuit, the regional water board for Lake Tahoe is now suing the major oil companies as well as several local gasoline stations. The amount sought is in the millions. Should the oil companies lose this suit, justice will no doubt be served-but car owners will pay at the pump this high price for industry stupidity.

Furthermore, contamination of drinking water will continue to occur in random spots across California. No communities are truly safe. (In fact, here in Marin, 17 monitoring wells near critical locations are registering more than 1,000 ppb. Two sites in Marin have more than 90,000 pp. Although these wells are not involved with our drinking water supply, their cleanup will be required, and you will pay for it either with your taxes or money at the pump.

Despite this, Big Oil is not about to abandon MTBE. Some industry analysts claim that the companies need at least another five to six years to profit from the retro-fit that occurred when MTBE entered the new gas formula. Interestingly enough, spokespeople for Big Oil talk about phasing out the chemical within a six-year period.

Adding apparent science to their ammunition, Big Oil cites the recent UC Davis study as justification for further MTBE use. This study stated that the additive cannot conclusively be proven to be carcinogenic. Although the study did indicate cause for concern, Big Oil will ignore that warning as it did so many others.

My paranoia reaching new ceiling-high records, I questioned John Marchand, who oversees the Alameda County Water District. Marchand had been one of the most concerned scientists in the anti-MTBE group back in 1997. What did he make of the UC Davis study?

Logical and scientific as usual, Marchant said that the study did not disappoint him. He certainly did not share my worries that the UC group had been bought out. Rather he pointed out that the study was run under the guidelines and protocols of Prop. 65. Such a study needs the strictest, most unequivocal proof of a chemical's carcinogenicity before it can be declared unacceptable. He did not believe that the study indicated that MTBE was not a problem. Nor does he rule out that at some point, MTBE might join other substances on the carcinogen list. (Even the nicotine in cigarettes had failed to be proven as carcinogens in early studies, although eventually nicotine would deserve and receive that label.)

Further decreasing my paranoia, the state of California issued new guidelines regarding MTBE early this January. The new regulations require that drinking water not exceed a five-part per billion (ppb) standard in the secondary standards. (Secondary standards are those regulating water for its taste and odor only.)

Unfortunately, another standard may be upped in the near future. John Kaiser, of the San Francisco Bay Area Regional Water Board, explained that the California State Health Department might use the UC Davis study to bring about an acceptable limit of 47 ppb in the primary standards. (The primary standard regulates water as to its acceptable health risk limit.) Kaiser also explained the vast task before oversight boards such as his.

His water board has to oversee some nine counties here in the Bay Area, and there are significant gasoline site leaks at more than 8,000 locations.

Knowing the ins and outs of how his agency already has enough to do, and knowing that the six-year phase-out of MTBE will only add to the workload, he called MTBE "the nightmare on Elm Street."

Those of us who have studied MTBE in all its complexity, from understanding its chemical makeup, its pharmacological breakdown, to the various political wild cards it has dealt the State Senate, now do have one new reason for hope. Former Governor Wilson was clearly in the pro-MTBE camp. Newly-elected Grey Davis is believed to be more environmentally friendly. Much depends on who he selects to fill such assignments as the State Secretary of Health and Human Services, both the Deputy Director and Director of Health, and the Division Chief overseeing Drinking Water and Environmental Management.

Additionally, State Senator Don Perata (D-East Bay) is proposing legislation to create a ban effective on December 1, 1999. His office asks for your support; call 510-286-1333 or fax 510-286-3885. The oil industry is already gearing up to defeat his proposal.

However things may turn out in the political world, it is wise to remember that MTBE itself is always the political wild card. In fact, it came into widespread use precisely because it was originally seen as being the environment's new best friend.

Yes, originally MTBE was seen as a redeeming substance which would lower both hydrocarbons and nitrous oxides emitted from automobile tailpipes. Concern about air quality and a desperate need to do something, anything, about smog in big cities created a most unusual scenario. This concern spawned the Clear Air Act of 1990. This Act was a federal ordinance mandating oxygenates inside a "cleaner" gasoline in regions where smog levels were exceedingly high. If you read the Act, you'll notice two interesting things.

Item One is that the Act asked that MTBE be considered as a possible oxygenate to reduce pollution. Item Two is the fact that the very same Act also listed MTBE as a hazardous-use chemical whose presence in the environment should be reduced!

Five years later, a colorful brochure that Chevron created to explain MTBE did carefully state on one page that MTBE was capable of eating away polymers. Polymers are used in everything from car fuel lines to the newly-required gas storage tanks. Now there are reports that due to MTBE's corrosive effect on such modern-day chemicals, fiberglass particles from the new gas storage tanks are being found inside our cars' gas tanks!

If as a consumer you wish to avoid ruining your car or further contaminating our environment, consider the following: become a patron at any of Marin County's Union 76 stations. Ethanol rather than MTBE is used as the gasoline oxygenate in Union 76's gas formula. Reports by those making the switch to ethanol are happy ones: ethanol users say their gas mileage is significantly higher.

Secondly, contact Senator Mountjoy's office in Sacramento, 916-445-2848. Tell them you support the senator in all his many attempts to rid the state of this chemical. Ask to be on the mailing list regarding this issue.

Finally, understand that at the time of MTBE's initial introduction into the gasoline formula, a field called industrial ecology was still in its infancy. Industrial ecology is a study of product development that commits to responsible engineering wherein all important factors of a product are evaluated. In the MTBE decision, important factors were indeed left unconsidered.

There were no pharmacologists at the oil companies to explain the breakdown of the additive in terms of the human body. No one explained to Arco, Chevron, Exxon and the rest that MTBE would, as an ether, accumulate in an individual's body. (Ether as an anesthetic had been banned from operating rooms for precisely that reason some 35 years ago.) No one mentioned that MTBE breaks down into methyl alcohol, a compound known for deteriorating the eye. Nor was there any discussion of its breakdown into tertiary butyl ether, a compound afflicting the liver and kidneys. After all, why should oil companies worry about anything other than a car's performance levels and of course, as importantly, meeting federal regulations (some of which were far less concerned with human health than a person would suppose.)

And, of course, not much mention was made of MTBE's water solubility until the major oil companies had already put it in the mix.

Today the field of industrial ecology is emphasizing that precisely these considerations be examined before any big company develop, alter, or "improve" any of their products. As this field develops, it may prevent other disasters such as MTBE from occurring. Industrial ecology will no doubt cite MTBE's use as an oxygenate as a textbook case of what not to do when developing a product like reformulate gasoline. It appears the human race is learning. Let up hope that our willingness to learn has not come about way too late.

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