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

Tahoe Test for MTBE

Air Date: Week of

The fuel additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether, or MTBE, is a suspected carcinogen that is showing up in many of California's lakes and reservoirs. Two major studies are under way at Lake Tahoe, on the California-Nevada border, to determine how two-stroke engines may be contributing to the problem. Willie Albright has reports.


CURWOOD: There's growing concern that pollution from 2-stroke marine engines is polluting the nation's drinking water. Take California, for example, where the fuel additive and suspected carcinogen methyl-tertiary butyl-ether, or MTBE, is showing up in many lakes and reservoirs. At Lake Tahoe, scientists are studying how 2-stroke engines may be contributing to the problem. Willie Albright has the details.

(A jet ski motor runs)

ALBRIGHT: Like elsewhere in the country, jet ski use is on the rise here at Lake Tahoe. Enthusiasts say the tiny vessels skim over the surface of the water like snowmobiles and are an exhilarating ride. But there's a growing call to ban their use on the lake. Critics say they are obnoxious and dangerous. Now there's concern that jet skis may also be contaminating Lake Tahoe.

(Waves crashing on the shoreline)

In June, scientists from the University of Nevada, Reno began a 3-year study of the levels of the fuel constituents MTBE and benzene in the lake. Standing on the shore of Lake Tahoe, environmental sciences professor Dr. Glenn Miller says the early results are disturbing.

MILLER: That first set of data we've gathered this summer I think clearly indicates that in general, these constituents tend to increase over the summer and that before and after major weekends like Fourth of July and Labor Day, there's dramatic increases in concentrations of these chemicals in the surface layer.

ALBRIGHT: Dr. Miller says the 2-stroke engines used in most jet skis and outboard motors are the primary contributors of these chemicals because 25% of the fuel is emitted as exhaust, which goes into the water. Critics say this is becoming a national problem.

LONG: The problem is this: In US waterways there are 15 Exxon Valdez spills per year coming from outboard power boats and jet skis.

ALBRIGHT: Russell Long is an experienced yachtsman and the director of the Blue Water Network, a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to getting all 2-stroke engines out of the water.

LONG: We have 31 lawsuits pending right now. One of those suits is against the EPA's new marine motor regulations. Those regulations are meant to decrease the amount of pollution that's hitting America's waterways by a substantial factor, and in fact they turn out to be very lenient. That's why we're suing.

ALBRIGHT: The Environmental Protection Agency has mandated a 16% reduction in 2-stroke emissions by 1999, and a 75% reduction by 2006. But Mr. Long says this isn't good enough. He wants the EPA to ban 2-strokes altogether in favor of much cleaner 4-stroke engines, such as those used in automobiles. Earlier this year, the Bi-State Tahoe Regional Planning Agency decided to ban 2-stroke engines on the lake beginning in June 1999. The industry has filed suit in Federal court to block the ban.

FAGAN: There is really no objective scientific basis for the proposed ban, which we believe is a fundamental flaw in the proposed ban.

ALBRIGHT: John Fagan is a Tahoe city attorney representing the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

FAGAN: It's a tremendous leap and I think really one that's not justified to assume that simply because there are traces of the compounds from gasoline that would be found in any lake around the country that it's automatically related to motorized water craft. There are potentially many other sources.

ALBRIGHT: Sources he says, such as automobile exhaust and leaking fuel storage tanks. Mr. Fagan says there is also some question that the testing equipment Dr. Miller used at Lake Tahoe may have been contaminated. The industry has funded its own studies, which conclude that these emissions evaporate from surface water within a matter of hours, and pose no threat to either water quality or aquatic ecosystems.

(Waves against the shore line)

ALBRIGHT: Though Lake Tahoe's colder waters may also slow that evaporation, and Dr. Miller says he has detected benzene and MTBE in deep water, where it is likely to persist for decades. He says protecting Lake Tahoe is an important goal in itself, but the research will also be useful elsewhere.

MILLER: Lake Tahoe is probably the place we want to protect more. It is a place where it's probably going to be a more difficult problem to solve. And so, that if we work on Lake Tahoe and understand Lake Tahoe, I think those data and that information is going to be relevant to a lot of lakes throughout the nation.

ALBRIGHT: In light of Dr. Miller's research, the California Senate has allocated $500,000 to conduct its own study of the effects of MTBE at Lake Tahoe and elsewhere.

(Jet ski motors)

ALBRIGHT: The Marine Manufacturers Association is developing new 2-stroke technology to meet the EPA guidelines, and has vowed to fight any effort to ban 2-stroke engines altogether. For Living on Earth, I'm Willie Albright at Lake Tahoe.



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