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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Paying at the Pump

Air Date: Week of October 31, 2003

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Seventeen states have banned the use of MTBE in gasoline, and New Hampshire is thinking of doing the same. Host Steve Curwood visited with Kevin Waterhouse, owner of a gas station in Windham, New Hampshire. He tells how MTBE has leaked from his own gas pumps, and what he’s doing to keep his neighbors’ water MTBE free.

Transcript

CURWOOD: MTBE has quickly become a national problem because the chemical rapidly infiltrates drinking water supplies. That means the slightest leak puts nearby wells and reservoirs at immediate risk. Seventeen states have voted to ban the chemical and others, including New Hampshire, are considering that step.

[SOUND OF PASSING CARS, BEEPING OF GAS TANK]

CURWOOD: In the town of Windham, New Hampshire, Kevin Waterhouse runs a country store and a gas station that’s been in his family for 81 years. Mr. Waterhouse joined me on the front porch of his store, and as we watched customers fill up, he told me how MTBE became a problem for him.

[SOUND OF CARS PASSING BY]

WATERHOUSE: Well, back in 1995 we were improving the development of our property here at the intersection of 111 and 128. We had a very old country store with two gas tanks, serving a regular and a super pump. Taking them out, we invited the Department of Environmental Services to come down and do soil samples to see what was under the old tanks. And they came back with the determination that we had MTBEs in the soil.

We then constructed our new tanks, pumps in a complete drainage system that would protect the whole property, keeping any water runoff from getting out onto state land. And we put in 12 test wells around the property to see where the flow from the original contamination was headed underground. What we found is that our remediation plans were working, cleaning up the old site, but we were getting a brand new contamination, much higher in quantities than we’d ever seen before outside of the new tanks.

And for the last four years we’ve been doing every test imaginable to find out where we’ve got a problem coming from. We have not found anything that would lead us to believe that the tanks aren’t tight. And yet we keep spiking for MTBEs.

CURWOOD: How frustrating is it to be taking all the steps that the engineers are telling you to take to solve this problem and you still haven’t solved it?

WATERHOUSE: Well, it’s extremely frustrating. We know that it’s our responsibility to not have a problem. We’re doing everything that we can imagine to correct any deficiency we might have. We can’t find one and yet the problem gets worse. We’re not finding any other chemicals from gasoline other than the MTBEs. The benzenes seem to be dissipating into the air and it’s only this one chemical that’s giving us a problem.

[SOUNDS OF CARS STOPPING; MEN TALKING]

CURWOOD: What concerns do you have about the water quality itself here?

WATERHOUSE: This whole problem did not come in the usual fashion of – we didn’t find a water problem and then say where did the problem come from. We’ve actually done it from the correct way. We’ve found out there was a problem, then we’ve gone and tested the wells, told the people you do have a problem and we’re going to correct it for you. And we’ve purchased a filtration system for their home, to make sure that they have safe drinking water. That’s covered by the state of New Hampshire’s Odds fund. And we pay into our gas tax, and that money is used to make sure that we can clean up environmental hazards, or protect our neighbors from problems that we’ve created.

But from the information that I’ve gotten from the state of New Hampshire, this is definitely a cancer-causing agent. We thought we were putting this into our gasoline to protect the air. And it turns out that we may be protecting the air, but we’re destroying the water quality of our neighbors.

CURWOOD: How much do you worry about being sued by your neighbors?

WATERHOUSE: It is a concern to me. I know that, thanks to the state of New Hampshire’s prompt action, we have been right on top of keeping these people with good quality drinking water. But should one of my neighbors determine to sell their property, if they did not get the fair market value they were expecting, they may indeed look to me and want me to make up the difference.

CURWOOD: What do you think of the idea of Congress shielding the makers of MTBE from liability?

WATERHOUSE: I would have to be against shielding them because they either did know or should have known the cancer-causing potential of this chemical. If they didn’t know they should have done more testing before they chose this as the proper method of cleaning up the air.

CURWOOD: Compared to other problems you’ve had in the past, how serious is this MTBE problem for you?

WATERHOUSE: It’s actually been the most worrisome problem that I’ve experienced in my 12 years of running the family business. It affects everything that I try to plan for the future because it leaves me in a position of vulnerability. It’s something I can’t control. I can’t just make the business decision--if I spend more money I can correct the problem, it will go away. No matter what amount we have spent to ensure that we don’t have leaks into the ground, I’m still putting MTBEs into the ground. So it’s much more serious than anything else I’ve had to deal with.

CURWOOD: Kevin Waterhouse is the general manager of the Waterhouse Country Store, a family business in Windham, New Hampshire.

WATERHOUSE: Thank you very much.

[SOUNDS OF CARS PASSING, GAS TANK BEEPING]

[MUSIC: Mu-Ziq “Mushroom Compost” LUNATIC HARNESS (Astralwerks – 1997)]

 

 

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