Plugging a risky leak

Fuel additive: Cutting MTBE, tightening storage inspections would reduce pollution threat.

March 04, 2000

THE chemical compound Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether is a mouthful -- and that's the problem with the required gasoline additive.

The compound is an efficient-burning "oxygenate" that reduces air pollution. But it's also a suspected cause of cancer that's seeping into groundwater nationwide; it leaves a turpentine taste in drinking water.

A coalition of environmental groups, state regulators and the oil industry wants to eliminate or cut the federal requirement of 2 percent oxygenate in gasoline, while holding to clean-fuel standards through other methods.

A bill to create a task force to study MTBE health risks has passed the Maryland House. California is banning MTBE.

But the main responsibility lies with Congress, which faces heavy pressure from the Corn Belt lobby to keep the 2-percent oxygenate rule. The reason: If MTBE were banned, corn-based ethanol is the only ready substitute that could meet the 2-percent standard. That would mean a boon for corn growers and fuel companies.

The better approach is to both eliminate the oxygenate mandate and phase out MTBE, allowing fuel makers the freedom to meet the clean-burning standard in some other way.

The widespread potential health threat to drinking water supplies requires such decisive action. Both clean air and clean water can be achieved without unduly enriching corn farmers at the expense of the nation's motorists.

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