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Tech

University urges California to eliminate MTBE

MTBE is added to California's gasoline to help curb air pollution. However, it is also a known carcinogen and is believed to contaminate water resources and leave them with a foul odor   

November 19, 1998
Web posted at: 12:50 PM EST

By Environmental News Network staff

(ENN) -- The University of California, in a report to Governor Pete Wilson, has recommended that California begin a gradual phase-out of the additive MTBE from its clean-air gasoline program.

The university was paid $500,000 by the state of California 10 months ago to conduct an unbiased and authoritative study of the human health and environmental impacts of MTBE.

MTBE is added to California's gasoline to help curb air pollution. However, it is also a known carcinogen and is believed to contaminate water resources and leave them with a foul odor.

MTBE has leaked into water supplies at numerous locations in California, and the water contamination has brought widespread objections to its use. The university report warns that continued use of MTBE can damage California water supplies, particularly during droughts.

"If MTBE continues to be used at current levels and more sources become contaminated," the report said, "the potential for regional degradation of water resources, especially groundwater basins, will increase. Severity of water shortages during drought years will be exacerbated."
Factoid:

MTBE (Methyl Tertiary-Butyl Ether) is a volatile, organic chemical. Since the late 1970's, MTBE has been used as an octane enhancer in gasoline. Because it promotes more complete burning of gasoline, thereby reducing carbon monoxide and ozone levels, it is commonly used as a gasoline additive in localities which do not meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

Source: EPA

Use of MTBE in California has brought legal actions against oil companies and gasoline stations. City officials in South Lake Tahoe have declared that MTBE must be removed from gasoline sold there by mid-1999, and the South Tahoe Utility District earlier recently sued oil companies to recover water treatment costs.

"There are significant risks and costs associated with water contamination due to the use of MTBE," the University of California report said. "It is clear we are placing our limited water resources at risk by using MTBE."

The report recommends a gradual phase-out of MTBE from gasoline in California, with a series of suggested options for doing so in a manner that will allow for a thorough study of the environmental impacts of any chosen strategy.

In addition, the report explores existing and promising new strategies for remediating contaminated surface water and groundwater supplies, and prevention of further contamination of surface waters.

The report also concludes that technical advances in new automobile emission controls and combustion systems, and in new gasoline formulations, have dramatically decreased the air quality benefits associated with adding oxygenates to gasoline, making the potential for water contamination by MTBE a cost that is not offset by a corresponding benefit.

Fuels for the Future, an ethanol industry lobby group that has promoted the phase-out of MTBE, said that report recommends further study of ethanol as a viable clean-air fuel additive.

Copyright 1998, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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