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Gas Additive MTBE Poses Choice

Story by John Howard, Associated Press
Published in the Birmingham Post-Herald
January 22, 2000

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- It smells like turpentine and spreads through water so quickly and thoroughly that a scan spoonful can foul an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

MTBE, a widely used gasoline additive that makes cars burn cleaner, has posed a cruel dilemma: It''s making the air cleaner, but it''s polluting the water.


A suspected animal carcinogen with unknown health effects on humans, MTBE has become the curse of water officials from California to New England.

Leaking from gas stations'' underground fuel tanks, it has forced wells to close, run up millions of dollars in cleanup costs, sparked lawsuits and prompted state, local and federal investigations into a petrochemical that is still something of a mystery.

"It''s a diabolical chemical. It moves up, it moves down, it moves everywhere. Our feeling is that as long as MTBE is in gasoline, our groundwater is in jeopardy", said Dennis Cocking of the South Tahoe Public Utility District, where 12 of 34 wells were closed because of MTBE.

MTBE has two critical characteristics -- its ability to spread quickly, caused by its high solubility, and its permanency. Even in its tiniest proportions, five parts per billion, MTBE has an easily detectable smell.

"The stuff moves like wildfire. It increases exponentially. Once you find out you have a problem, you have a big problem. And once it''s in, how do you get it out?" said Doug Marsano of Denver-based American Water Works Association, a consortium of water agencies that has urged President Clinton to ban MTBE.


According to Marsano, the chemical has been detected in varying amounts in all 50 states. Significant MTBE contamination also has been found in such pastoral areas as Ronan, Mont., and Spring Green, Wis., as well as in major cities like Dallas, Denver and Las Vegas.

"You can see it in a contiguous line from California to the East Cost. One of the great questions here is why a chemical that we don''t have a lot of information about is being used in such a widespread manner," Marsano said. "At this point, we think it is a problem in every state, but just how significant a problem we don''t know."

A European study in the mid-1990s linked MTBE to liver and kidney tumors in mice. The danger to humans is unknown.

"At the levels we''re seeing in drinking water, there is no direct human study that shows cause and effect. The studies being used to assess risk are essentially studies being done on animals", said California''s top drinking water official, Dr. Dave Spath of the Department of Health Services. "But the problem with MTBE is whether there is a significant future threat because of all these tanks that leaked over many years."

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