House OKs 2 bills requiring notification of MTBE in water

3rd measure to study alternatives also passes

April 03, 2005|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The House of Delegates has given unanimous approval to two bills that would require notification to citizens when high levels of a toxic gasoline additive are found in their drinking water.

A third bill, which would require the state Department of the Environment to submit a report on the viability of alternatives to the use of methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, in gasoline to the General Assembly by December of next year, also passed the House without opposition.

But the legislature killed several similar bills, including one sponsored by Del. Joanne S. Parrott, a Harford County Republican, that would have phased out the use of MTBE in gasoline within five years.

The bills were drawn up by legislators from Harford County after traces of the gasoline additive were found in nearly 180 wells in the Upper Crossroads section of the county. At least part of the leaks came from an Exxon station at Routes 152 and 165, according to state officials.

Angry residents of the area demanded action to correct what they saw as a threat to their health as well as to the value of their homes.

MTBE was first added to gasoline in the early 1990s to help it burn cleaner and to fight unhealthful summer smog.

Its health effects on humans are unknown at the low level typically found in well water, but it has caused cancer in laboratory animals in high doses.

Del. Barry Glassman, chairman of the Harford County legislative delegation, said he was "guardedly optimistic" that the bills passed by the House would clear the Senate and make their way to the governor's desk for signing.

The House action was well received by residents living in the Upper Crossroads section of Fallston, although they had hoped for more sweeping measures dealing with the contamination of their wells.

Glassman said, "MTBE is a regional problem. It is not a Harford County-only problem."

He expressed his concerns that regulations adopted by the state will show that MTBE contamination in Maryland is greater than previously believed.

"I have a feeling that we are going to see a lot more contamination of wells around the state as a result of the pressure tests [on underground gasoline storage tanks] and monitoring wells at gas stations required by new state regulations," Glassman said.

The MTBE bills approved by the House include:

Legislation to require such facilities as schools and day care centers using nontransient water systems to test for MTBE and to notify parents if there is a finding of more than 20 parts per billion. This is the level at which the state advises residents to filter their water or to drink bottled water. It is also the point at which some people can smell or taste the additive in their water.

Glassman said the bill stems from a situation at the Fallston Presbyterian Church preschool, where the MTBE level reached 229 parts per billion in March 2003. Parents weren't informed of the problem until after it was corrected.

A measure requiring local health departments to notify residents within a half-mile radius of an MTBE leak. It requires that notification be done within 14 days of when the leak is detected.

Upper Crossroads residents were angry last year to learn that there had been MTBE leaks near their homes over a period of 10 years during which they were not notified.

A requirement that the state Department of the Environment study the economic impact of a ban on the use of MTBE in gasoline and the viability of using an alternative, such as ethanol.

"We are very happy with what our delegates have accomplished, but we are disappointed that the bills are not more sweeping," said Steven J. Scheinin, president of the Greater Fallston Association Inc.

"We would like to see the state of Maryland say that we don't need MTBE or any other oxidizer in our gasoline," he said. "Our position is that cars have become so much more efficient in burning gasoline that MTBE is no longer required.

"We are happy with what it looks like we will be getting," Scheinin said, "but we had hoped for more."

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