Additive for fuel targeted by study

Gas tank leaks said to send chemical into water in parts of Md.

March 08, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

It used to be that the tap water at Millersville Auto Parts on Veterans Highway smelled so bad you couldn't drink it, couldn't brush your teeth with it, couldn't rinse your mouth with it, says owner Bob Preville.

"We had to replace the coffee makers every six months," he says. "You'd pour water in them and it would just come out all over the place."

The shop is now hooked up to Anne Arundel County's water supply.

The water system that once supplied the store and other businesses in the Chesapeake Plaza north of county police headquarters was among 66 of the 1,060 public water systems in Maryland where environmental officials have found the gasoline additive MTBE.

MTBE -- methyl tertiary butyl ether -- was first added to the petroleum stew called gasoline in the 1970s to help increase octane after lead was removed. It became even more common in the last decade as the key to reducing air pollution because it makes gasoline burn cleaner.

The additive is used in all or part of 16 states, including much of the gas sold in the Northeast. As part of the 1990 Clean Air Act, Congress required gasoline in areas with serious air pollution to contain at least 2 percent oxygen by weight. MTBE has been refiners' oxygenate of choice because it is cost-effective and improves performance.

A European study linked MTBE with liver and kidney tumors in mice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls it a potential human carcinogen, although no studies have linked it to cancer in humans.

Despite its role in reducing air pollution, MTBE is seen as a danger.

Maryland's Department of the Environment has found the additive in 210 of 280,000 private drinking water wells in the state in addition to the 66 public water systems since 1995.

Because the affected systems make up a small percentage of water sources in Maryland, "it isn't a crisis situation -- yet," says Rich McIntire, an MDE spokesman.

Del. Virginia P. Clagett, D-West River, says she isn't waiting. Her bill to create a task force to study the effects of MTBE and recommend a plan for dealing with them passed the House of Delegates 135-0 last week and is under consideration in the Senate.

MDE, which has asked the General Assembly for permission to spend $150,000 from a state oil tax to hire more ground water inspectors, has been on a 10-year campaign to find and clean up leaking gas tanks.

The department has closed about 6,400 leaking sites since 1988, says Horacio Tablada, MDE's deputy director of waste management. In that time, nearly all the state's underground gasoline storage tanks have been replaced with double-walled tanks that have corrosion prevention materials and leak detectors.

Now, MDE is hunting for "historical leaks," says Tablada, from tanks "no one knew was there" and getting help from major oil companies that have kept data on MTBE and leaking gas tanks.

The oil companies, represented by the American Petroleum Institute, have become part of an uncommon coalition lobbying to reduce use of the additive nationally.

The coalition, which includes the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, the American Lung Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council, is part of a growing movement to ban or at least reduce the use of the additive.

California Gov. Gray Davis ordered phasing out the use of MTBE in his state by 2002.

Last summer, a Blue Ribbon Panel appointed by Carol M. Browner, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, recommended substantially reducing the use of MTBE.

Last week, lobbyists and legislators pushed the House Commerce Committee's subcommittee on Health and Environment to reduce MTBE requirements.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, has introduced legislation for a national ban on the use of MTBE.

But the Oxygenated Fuels Association, an organization of MTBE manufacturers and some refiners, says the additive has been unfairly singled out.

"Why would you want to dismantle one of the most successful clean air programs ever figured out?" asks Dave Little of the Oxygenated Fuels Association. "If you fix the leaking gas tanks you'll solve the problem."

Little argues that banning MTBE won't solve water contamination problems because gasoline still can leak into ground water.

"You get rid of MTBE, and you just have yummy gasoline in your water," he says, "Next to benzene and toluene, MTBE is in the same category as fluorescent lighting when it comes to causing cancer."

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