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Navy Decides to Clean Up MTBE Plume Beneath Base

Environment: Military originally planned to do nothing about the spilled fuel additive, but changed its position under pressure from a U.S. senator.

August 11, 2000|GARY POLAKOVIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Navy has changed course and is proceeding with plans to halt a runaway underground contaminant slick beneath its Port Hueneme base that is headed for a major shipping port.

Under pressure from California regulators, the military is close to completing plans to arrest the spread of MTBE, the fuel additive that was supposed to clean the air but polluted a vast portion of the water table at the Naval Construction Battalion Center. The Navy is scheduled to submit its plan by September, designs for the cleanup method are due by November and a system will be installed thereafter, according to officials.

"They are committed to addressing the issue that needs to be addressed--that is containment and control of the plume," said Peter Raftery, associate engineering geologist with the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Earlier this year, the Navy was content to let the mess spread because, base officials maintained, it served as a host for various experiments to control MTBE, a fast-spreading pollutant turning up in water wells around the nation.

Further, Navy officials said MTBE pollution at the base posed no risk to people or the environment and it couldn't afford the cost of stopping its spread.

But that stance drew rebukes from some community leaders and environmentalists. The pollutant flow, although increasingly dilute as it creeps through soil, advances at the rate of about one foot per day. That is fast enough to reach the surface and spill into a channel that empties into the Port of Hueneme in perhaps one year, officials say. The plume today is about 500 feet wide and one mile long--one of the largest toxic messes of its kind in California.

After reading about the situation in a Los Angeles Times article, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in January wrote a letter to the Defense Department, saying the Navy's response to the pollution was unacceptable and urging a swift cleanup.

Since then, the military agreed to work with California water quality authorities and prepare strategies that, while not fully eradicating the pollution, will keep it from spreading.

Base spokeswoman Linda Wadley said the Navy changed course in response to a directive from state regulators who requested the military devise a control plan. Since then, engineers have been working to pinpoint the plume so they can cut it off at its leading edge. How they achieve that control, however, is yet to be determined, she said.

"We do plan to control and contain the plume," Wadley said. "We are working hard with the water board to identify the best method and we are making progress."

Methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, was first used in 1972 as a gasoline booster, but its use spread after the 1990 Clean Air Act required smoggy places such as Southern California to use oxygen-rich substances like MTBE as a clean-air formula.

Today, MTBE leaks from about 4,000 tank sites statewide, has been detected in 31 wells and shut down much of the domestic water supply for Santa Monica and South Lake Tahoe.

The pollution at the Port Hueneme base was born in 1985 when 11,000 gallons of gasoline leaked from corroded underground tanks. Those tanks were replaced with leak-proof ones, but the chemical, which outruns petroleum hydrocarbons once it hits the water table, was on its way. The contamination was first spotted in a test well in 1995 at a depth of 10 feet.

It has spread so far since then that the Navy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the Navy base as a testing center for MTBE remedies, a program that has won the Navy acclaim for its pursuit of innovative environmental solutions.

Tests are underway at the base using alternative technologies to remove MTBE from water, a task that has thwarted many conventional treatment methods. Among the experimental treatment techniques that have been tried are microbes that attack the chemical and convert it to carbon dioxide gas, various filtration devices, and a eucalyptus tree being examined to determine if its roots suck up the chemical, according to officials.

The Environmental Protection Agency has added the naval base to its Superfund Innovative Technology Evaluation program and allocated $1 million to monitor the MTBE cleanup experiments. The agency could begin its pilot projects by the end of the year, said Dave Schmidt, spokesman for the EPA's California office.

"It's very important because the existing technologies that have been used have had limited effectiveness and we think there are new technologies that might work better," Schmidt said.

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