Concerned that Orange County's vast ground water supply is being threatened by leaks from underground gasoline tanks, local prosecutors are proposing what would be the state's--and possibly the nation's--toughest rules yet for monitoring such containers.
Although pollution from gas storage tanks is a problem across the country, the stakes are especially high in Orange County because of the area's reliance on underground aquifers, which produce drinking water for more than 1 million residents.
The push for tougher rules comes several months after officials for the first time detected the gas additive MTBE in a Yorba Linda production well that supplies water to residents.
There are more than 1,000 underground tank facilities in Orange County, and the Health Care Agency reports some type of surface leakage around 430 of them. A leak reached the drinking water supply in Yorba Linda last summer, though no contaminated water reached household taps.
Officials stress that there is no immediate risk to the public, but the discovery has served as a wake-up call in a county that pumps 316 million gallons of water a day from the ground.
"You just don't want to put that kind of resource at risk," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Michelle Lyman, a prosecutor with the county's environmental protection division. "It would be a total economic catastrophe."
Current federal regulations require all underground storage tanks to be double-walled and that leak detection devices be installed, among other safeguards. But the district attorney's office is proposing the mandatory drilling of shafts near gasoline containers so that soil can be tested periodically for possible contamination.
The oil industry is already lining up against the proposal, which would require businesses to pay $3,000 to $4,000 for each new monitoring shaft. Critics maintain that current safeguards--enacted in 1998--are adequate and that Orange County's proposal isn't worth the costs.
But prosecutors said the monitors can help to more quickly identify leaks and prevent them from reaching aquifers.
The plan is strongly supported by some water officials, who say that polluted wells would force them to either purchase expensive water from the Colorado River or run ground water through additional cleaning filtration. Either option would probably require hikes in consumer water rates.
"The effects of today's pollution won't be seen until years later," said William Mills, general manager of the Orange County Water District. "It is important to catch contamination early."
The proposal, which must be approved by the Board of Supervisors, would require businesses to prove they have installed the monitors in order to get business licenses and other gas-related permits. It is sparking a new debate over how best to protect the local water supply and how aggressive government regulations should be.
Orange County's underground water is one of the most plentiful drinking water sources in the state.
The discovery of MTBE in the Yorba Linda well last summer alarmed officials because the gas additive seeped fairly deep into the aquifer used for drinking water.
Officials immediately shut off the well, which serves 17,000 households. Eventually, it was reopened after workers dug a deeper well that yielded clean water.
Although no widespread contamination has been found elsewhere, officials fear that decades of leaks from underground tanks will eventually send more chemicals deep into the earth.
In Santa Monica, MTBE contamination shut down seven underground wells in 1996 that supplied 50% of the city's water. Lawsuit settlements with oil companies funded a cleanup program, but officials there don't expect full recovery until at least 2003.
The city turned to importing water at a greater cost while building a filtration system for the aquifers.
MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, helps gasoline burn cleaner. It has been credited with dramatically cutting down air pollution around the country--especially in Southern California. But the chemical is linked to cancer in lab animals and is considered to be a potential human carcinogen.
The chemical is of special concern because studies have shown that MTBE travels faster through soil than gasoline itself.
Gas Additive MTBE to Be Phased Out
Gov. Gray Davis last year signed an executive order to phase in a state ban of MTBE by 2002. But that still leaves the contamination that is already in the soil.
Orange County officials said the soil monitoring is necessary because the devices now used to detect gas leakage from storage tanks don't always work. Each monitoring shaft would cost private businesses up to $4,000 to install and $5,000 to operate annually.
"It is a minimal cost compared to the amount of damage that can be prevented by discovering a problem sooner rather than later," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Lance Jensen.
Jensen said it makes sense for Orange County to enact its own ordinance because not every jurisdiction in the state is as heavily dependent on underground water.
But others aren't convinced that such extensive monitoring is needed--and would be cost effective.
"It is hard to speculate as to what would happen, whether the benefits would outweigh the costs," said Robert Miller, spokesman for the State Water Resources Control Board, which has opposed statewide efforts for such monitoring.
Miller and others said drilling numerous monitoring shafts may actually help chemicals travel faster by creating a suction effect. "If you punch a hole in the ground you are creating a passage for the contaminants," he said.