MTBE makers should fund cleanup

September 28, 2004|By Valerie Twanmoh and Roman E. Ratych

FROM THE OUTSET, children are taught a simple but important lesson: If you make a mess, you clean it up.

Unfortunately, the oil and chemical companies that produce, use and distribute MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), a toxic gasoline additive, have forgotten this basic lesson. These companies not only refuse to clean up the MTBE contamination that is polluting water around the country, but also are lobbying for passage of the federal energy bill which will let them off the hook for the cleanup costs. The bill also delays banning MTBE nationwide until Dec. 31, 2014.

Within a few years of using MTBE as a replacement for lead in gasoline, oil companies knew that the additive easily contaminated ground water. According to documents released in a recent trial in California, oil company staff reported MTBE leaking into ground water and contaminating drinking water wells as early as 1980.

Rather than tell the public about the problem and stop using this toxic chemical, the oil companies kept the information to themselves and lobbied to expand its use significantly. Today, gasoline with MTBE has been used almost everywhere in the United States.

Now, at a time when cash-strapped state and local governments are pinching every penny to make ends meet and oil companies are making record profits, the oil and chemical companies argue that the cleanup of MTBE is not their responsibility. They are trying to shift billions of dollars in cleanup costs to taxpayers.

The mess made by MTBE is not as easy to clean up as a glass of spilled milk. For 25 years, this toxic gasoline additive has been leaking into soil and ground water and has polluted thousands of drinking water wells, including 250 in Harford County and several in Carroll County. Contamination has been found in every state, and the cleanup will cost at least tens of billions of dollars.

The major sources of MTBE pollution in ground water is from leaks in underground gasoline storage tanks. In Maryland, 2,412 MTBE leaks from underground storage tanks still need to be cleaned up. And 119 public drinking water systems serving 195,000 people have reported MTBE in the drinking water.

When MTBE leaks into ground water, the chemical creates a public health and water supply problem for citizens and local governments. MTBE is a possible carcinogen at high concentrations, and people have reported nausea, vomiting, dizziness and headaches after exposure. Even at low levels, the chemical makes water undrinkable because of its harsh turpentine-like taste and odor. As a result of contamination, cities and private well owners have been forced to close drinking water wells and to find alternative drinking water sources.

To deal with the extensive pollution, 19 states have passed laws to ban or significantly limit the use of MTBE in gasoline. Because of the industries' reckless disregard for the public health and refusal to take responsibility, cities, states, water utilities and even schools have sued the oil and chemical companies that produce, use and distribute MTBE to cover cleanup costs. Some of them have been successful.

In addition to fighting these court cases individually, the oil and chemical industries are working to pass the federal energy bill that will halt all of the lawsuits. If passed, the bill would invalidate more than 140 pending lawsuits and prevent future lawsuits from being filed. By shielding oil and chemical companies from these liability lawsuits, the legislation would leave taxpayers to foot the bill to clean up MTBE.

For example, officials in Plainview, N.Y., estimate that if the community is forced to bear the cost of an MTBE cleanup, residents will have to pay 61 percent more in property taxes and 30 percent more in water bills.

Oil and chemical companies, not taxpayers, should clean up MTBE contamination.

Valerie Twanmoh and Roman E. Ratych are co-chairs of the Greater Fallston Association, MTBE Task Force.

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