Push starts to ban MTBE

Delegate's resolution aims to ask EPA to bar Md. use

`Fairly difficult to do'

Transport of fuel without contaminant complicated

July 18, 2004|By Artika Rangan | Artika Rangan,SUN STAFF

Harford Del. Barry Glassman is drafting a House resolution that would ask the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to prohibit the use of MTBE in Maryland's fuel supply.

Glassman, a Republican and leader of the county's legislative delegation, said the resolution would be the most appropriate way to address the problem of MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, since federal requirements authorize use of the potentially carcinogenic chemical under the Clean Air Act. In 1990, that legislation required the use of oxygenates in gasoline to help the fuel burn more cleanly and reduce pollutants emitted from motor vehicles.

Local concern for the gasoline additive grew when investigators found early last month that an MTBE leak in the Upper Crossroads section of Fallston had contaminated wells there. Since then, at least 84 properties have been found to have the chemical present in their wells. Although no leak has been found at the Exxon station at Routes 152 and 165, environmental officials have said they believe that it is partly responsible for the problem.

Since the MTBE contamination was discovered, area residents have been drinking bottled water, and some have installed filtration systems, paid for by Exxon Mobil.

Glassman said he is most worried by MTBE's possibly carcinogenic qualities.

"I do not think the state can act unilaterally to ban MTBE," Glassman said. "We need to get the requirement removed at the federal level first."

But Richard McIntire, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, called Glassman's proposed request "fairly difficult to do."

Because the state does not have refineries, and consequently depends on oil produced in the Mid-Atlantic region, removing MTBE from Maryland's fuel supply could mean having to transport fuel from across the country, he said.

Sixteen states have banned or restricted the gasoline additive in their fuel supply, with New York being the closest to Maryland.

"It raises a lot of issues," McIntire said. "It creates transportation questions of trucking the oil. It raises the question of what we would use to replace MTBE. And it would extremely raise gas costs if Maryland were to stand by itself in the Mid-Atlantic region."

Congress has been mulling a nationwide phase-out of MTBE as part of a bill setting new federal energy policy, but has been unable to agree on the measure.

A task force looking at MTBE contamination in the state recommended in 2001 phasing out its use, but state officials decided that was impractical.

Robert Masters, hydrologist for the National Ground Water Association, a nonprofit organization based in Ohio, said MTBE is the most popular gasoline additive used in the nation.

Although it is not the only option, he said, the alternatives to MTBE, such as ethanol, are more costly.

"MTBE was the most inexpensive oxygenate to make," Masters said. "Effectively, if the tanks didn't leak, it would be a good thing."

But MTBE leaks have caused growing concern in the area.

The Fallston Community Council will hold a public meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Fallston High School, 2301 Carrs Mill Road, to provide an update on the well contamination.

Also, the state environmental department tested water from Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston last week because of the school's proximity to the contaminated wells in the Upper Crossroads area. The school district expects the results within a few weeks.

MTBE levels have declined significantly at the Exxon station in Upper Crossroads since a treatment system was installed June 17, according to state environmental officials. Last month, when the wells were first tested, a reading of 26,000 parts per billion was recorded beneath the station's fuel tanks. Since the treatment began, readings have fallen to 97.3 parts per billion.

More than a dozen sites in Harford County, including Fallston Presbyterian Church, have tested positive for MTBE. The church registered 229 parts per billion of MTBE in its water in March of last year. The state recommends that corrective action be taken when the contamination level reaches 20 parts per billion.

Glassman worries that more sites will test positive.

"The more people start looking at different areas," he said, "there's more that may be out there that we don't know about."

Sun staff writer Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

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