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Water Agencies Weigh Suit Against MTBE in Gasoline

Utility: State and federal officials are chastised for failure to act against the additive, which has leaked into ground water and reservoirs.

July 21, 2001|KENNETH REICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Bush and Davis administrations were assailed Friday by officials of the Metropolitan Water District and several municipal water agencies for failing to act vigorously against water pollution caused by the gasoline additive MTBE.

Meeting in Santa Monica, the water agency leaders agreed that a lawsuit might be the best way to remove a federal requirement that the state add either MTBE or ethanol to gasoline. The officials said they would explore the possibility with state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer.

The Bush administration last month denied a waiver that would have allowed dispensing with the additives, which are designed to cut smog. Congress also has balked at waiving the requirement. Midwestern agricultural interests are lobbying strenuously for continued use of ethanol, which is made from corn, while California's 52 members of the House of Representatives stand unanimously for removing the additive requirements in the state.

MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) raises gasoline octane levels and is supposed to help stem air pollution. But the air quality additive has been leaking, often from underground tanks, into ground water and reservoirs.

Even tiny quantities impair water quality. As little as a single pint could contaminate 600,000 gallons of water, making it taste and smell bad, water officials said.

The city of Santa Monica, which hosted Friday's meeting, has closed most of its wells and is relying for 80% of its water supplies on the MWD, at considerable expense to the city's ratepayers. Many officials are convinced that MTBE is carcinogenic.

At the three-hour meeting, water officials also complained that the state Department of Health Services has been dilatory in dispensing $20 million authorized to help clean up ground water supplies contaminated by MTBE.

They expressed concern that a Davis administration committee designed to encourage research into cleanup methods for such contamination has not met in nearly a year.

They also were worried that Gov. Gray Davis may back away from an order banning MTBE as of Jan. 1, 2003.

Davis spokesman Roger Salazar said the governor "has not made any decisions to change the ban, so this is just speculation."

Davis has asked the head of the California Environmental Protection Agency, Winston Hickox, to recommend the next steps by September.

A spokesman for Hickox said Friday that he believes the ban should go forward, but that it might be delayed.

Meanwhile, Ken August, spokesman for the state Department of Health Services, denied that the agency has been slow to distribute money for cleaning up MTBE and providing alternative sources of water. All eight requests by local agencies for funds, totaling $6.5 million, have been filled, he said.

Kevin L. Wattier, general manager of the Long Beach Water Department, chaired Friday's meeting and led a discussion of an "action plan" for resolving MTBE pollution problems. Among the proposals: barring the use of MTBE in boating fuel to prevent contamination of reservoirs.

Water officials said they have made little progress because of lobbying by industry groups to continue use of the additive.

Edgar G. Dymally, senior environmental specialist for the MWD, gave a pessimistic report, saying: "California is probably not going to get the relief it needs from the federal government."

State officials have said there may not be sufficient ethanol available at an acceptable price as an alternative to MTBE, if the additive is banned.

Either MTBE or ethanol is considered necessary to oxygenate the gasoline supply and curtail air pollution. But the water officials insist that other means are available to fight air pollution.

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