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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

MBTE Update

Air Date: Week of

Host Diane Toomey talks with environmental reporter Jane Kay of the San Francisco Examiner about the gasoline additive MTBE. News from a recent American Chemical Society meeting on dealing with the ground water contaminant is not encouraging.


TOOMEY: For years, the chemical methyl tertiary butyl ether has been added to gasoline to make it burn cleaner. The Clean Air Act mandates that gas additives, like MTBE, be used in areas with heavy air pollution. MTBE was meant to reduce air pollution, but it turns out to be dangerous to groundwater. Even small leaks can quickly contaminate wells, and that's exactly what happened in many places around the nation. The Environmental Protection Agency is moving to eliminate MTBE from gas, but even an immediate ban won't solve the problem, since there's no efficient way to clean up all the MTBE already underground. Jane Kay, a reporter with the San Francisco Examiner, just attended a meeting of the American Chemical Society, where dozens of studies on MTBE were presented. She says the results are discouraging.

KAY: They had confirmation of what they already suspected, that MTBE is very, very widespread in the nation's wells. There is no effective way to clean it up. The EPA has completed no human health studies on MTBE. And if the Agency did want to put a primary drinking water standard in effect, it would take six years to do so. So, the news was most dismal all around.

TOOMEY: So how do we clean this all up?

KAY: Scientists are using Vandenberg Air Force Base in central California as an experiment plot, and they've put almost sheets of plastic tubing in the ground and oxygen is put through the tubing, and it diffuses into the groundwater. And the bugs, the bacteria that kind of eat up the MTBE, are attracted to that oxygen. And that's one way of cleaning it up. Another way, used at south Lake Tahoe, which has 15 wells down because of MTBE, is just the conventional way of running it through carbon filter and treating it that way.

TOOMEY: Who gets to pay for all this cleanup?

KAY: Well, the EPA is saying it's not our fault. We wanted you to use an additive, but we didn't tell you to use MTBE. So we didn't make you use it. And the gas stations and some of the oil companies are saying we never wanted to use an additive. We were following your rules. We put this fuel underground. That's from where it leaked. Some of the environmentalists are saying the oil companies really wanted MTBE and they have to take responsibility for its moving in the groundwater. That issue has not been resolved. We know that there will be a great deal of loss in terms of natural resource, in terms of drinking water, and I think that's the greatest worry right now, rather than the money.

TOOMEY: So now that ethanol is poised to become the replacement for MTBE, Jane, I'm wondering is it possible that we're headed toward a similar problem down the road? Are we operating in the dark about ethanol, the way we were about MTBE years ago?

KAY: Well, you know, ethanol is an alcohol, which is made of corn and rice and other organic matter. And so there have been many health studies on alcohol, and alcohol is a carcinogen, and it is a reproductive toxin. But of course, that's, you know, the level of a martini. And of course the scientists like to joke that if it gets in the groundwater, all you have to do is add olives to it. But there has been no human health, ill human health effect, in ethanol diluted to the proportion that it would be if it leaked in the groundwater. But yes, scientists, when they were presenting their papers, did caution that there needs to be more studies about ethanol, and there shouldn't be just a cavalier switch-over. The environmentalists are divided on the matter. Some are happy because they want renewable fuels, and some environmentalists are backing California's position.

TOOMEY: And what is California's position?

KAY: California has said that it needs no additive, either MTBE or ethanol, to manufacture a clean-burning gas that can meet EPA's standards under the Clean Air Act. If it works for California, it could work for other parts of the country, and this would become a model.

TOOMEY: Jane Kay is an environmental reporter with the San Francisco Examiner.



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