Bad water

July 12, 2004

CLEAN DRINKING water at the turn of a household faucet is something most of us take for granted. But that's no longer the case in Fallston, where concentrations of a gasoline additive, a potentially cancer-causing chemical called MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, have been found in the water supply. State officials say that an Exxon service station is at least partly to blame. The Harford County station may have been leaking MTBE-laced fuel for years.

It's been a frightening ordeal for local residents. To the company's credit, ExxonMobil has paid to provide well-water filtration systems to some area residents. But that doesn't fix the problem. Some of the groundwater tests have found MTBE levels 1,300 times the 20 parts per billion level the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers safe. It will no doubt cost millions of dollars to clean up the contamination. And that doesn't even begin to factor in the damage that may already have been done to the health of those affected.

Maryland isn't the first state to experience problems with MTBE. It has leached into the water supply in at least three dozen states. In fact, there is growing evidence that MTBE groundwater contamination was a problem even before the gasoline additive was put into widespread use in the early '90s. That's primarily because MTBE is highly water soluble. And it appears the chemical's producers knew this might happen.

So what are the politicians in Washington doing about this growing mess? House Republicans insist that the makers of MTBE be protected from future product-liability lawsuits. In fact, they've happily held up the energy bill since last fall on this very point. And it's probably no coincidence that many of the biggest MTBE producers are located in the Texas district of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. He's a leading advocate for liability protection.

Admittedly, there are a lot of problems with the costly energy bill, including the potentially devastating effects of drilling for oil in the Alaskan wilderness. But offering liability protection to any one industry, particularly when MTBE has become such a chronic problem, is truly outrageous. The House would also have taxpayers fork over $2 billion to ease MTBE producers out of business. That's corporate welfare at its worst. At least Maryland residents can be satisfied that only two of the state's representatives, Democrat Albert R. Wynn and Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett, support this misguided proposal.

It's time for some reason in Washington. At the very least, it's time to rethink using MTBE as an additive when there are alternatives available. Those who think otherwise ought to visit the Fallston area and find out what life is like when you can't trust your water.

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