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

M-T-B-E To Go?

Air Date: Week of

Momentum is building in California to get rid of the gasoline additive MTBE. MTBE--or methyl-tertiary-butyl-ether--was added to gas in California and some other areas to help clean up the air, but now the additive is contaminating drinking water supplies. Cheryl Colopy reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Momentum is building in California to get rid of the gasoline additive M-T-B-E. M-T-B-E, or methyl- tertiary-butyl-ether, was added to gas in California and some other areas to help clean up the air. But now the additive is contaminating drinking water supplies. Cheryl Colopy reports.

MOUNTJOY: This is out of the wells in the City of Glennville. This well is contaminated to the levels of 200,000 parts per billion...

COLOPY: At a hearing in Sacramento earlier this month, California State Senator Dick Mountjoy presented a sample of M-T-B-E-contaminated drinking water for US Senator Barbara Boxer to smell.

BOXER: It's really --


BOXER: It's vile.

COLOPY: M-T-B-E from gasoline has been getting into water supplies around California from Santa Monica to Lake Tahoe. And it's shown up in other parts of the country, too. At very low levels, M-T-B-E makes water taste and smell like turpentine. The health risks of any level of M-T-B-E aren't clear, but some researchers say it can cause cancer, immune system damage, as well as respiratory and neurological problems. M-T-B-E is one of several oxygenates, compounds which help gasoline burn more cleanly. Federal law requires that an oxygenate be added to fuel in high smog areas, and refiners in California and some areas chose M-T-B-E. But Senator Boxer says it's turned out to be a bad choice.

BOXER: A mistake was made back in the 80s and early 90s because this M-T-B- E was added without enough studies.

COLOPY: Senator Boxer has asked EPA Administrator Carol Browner to look into alternatives to M-T-B-E and to plan a phase-out of the additive. Senator Boxer's voice is the latest in a chorus of calls to get rid of M-T-B-E, including California's senior senator, Diane Feinstein, and 2 California oil companies. They want Congress to give refiners more leeway in making cleaner-burning gasoline. The EPA says it's unaware of any problems with M- T-B-E itself. The real problem, Agency spokespeople say, is leaking underground storage tanks and pipelines. The Agency hasn't taken a position on phasing out M-T-B-E, but Richard Wilson, the EPA's Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, says whatever components go into gasoline, air quality can't be sacrificed.

WILSON: The thing we're going to be concerned about is whatever steps are taken, that we're sure we don't lose the progress we've already made and we continue toward getting even cleaner gasoline.

COLOPY: M-T-B-E will remain in gasoline in California and elsewhere for the time being. But public concern is beginning to spread throughout the country, and it may be just a matter of time before M-T-B-E is phased out. But what will take its place is uncertain. Manufacturers of ethanol, an oxygenate that doesn't contaminate water, are gearing up. But there are other problems with that. Meanwhile, refiners say they can now make gas that meets air standards without any oxygenates at all. For Living on Earth, I'm Cheryl Colopy.



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