OT: Danger to Water From Gas? Additives Effectsw on Health Debated

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Additive's effects on health debated

March 13, 2000 By Rob Zaleski

"60 Minutes'' called it the environmental crisis of the decade.

The "crisis'' alleged by the CBS news program rises from methyl tertiary butyl ether, a chemical oxygenate that oil companies have been adding to gasoline to help improve air quality in the nation's smoggiest areas.

In Wisconsin, MTBE is widely used in Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties.

Environmentalists say there's no question that the nation's air quality has gotten better over the last decade, when many areas began using additives such as MTBE to meet requirements of the 1990 Clean Air Act.

But according to "60 Minutes,'' in recent years MTBE has been discovered in lakes and underground aquifers and in about 20 percent of the nation's urban wells, forcing some cities -- including Santa Monica and South Lake Tahoe in California -- to shut down their water supplies.

Scarier yet, "the stuff moves like wildfire. It increases exponentially. And once it's in, how do you get it out?'' said Doug Marsano of the American Water Works Association, which is urging President Clinton to ban MTBE.

Although the human health effects of MTBE still aren't known, a European study showed that high doses of the chemical caused leukemia, lymphoma and testicular cancer in lab animals. But those results have been disputed by some scientists, "60 Minutes'' said during its Jan. 16 broadcast.

Nevertheless, Mark Nelson of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources termed the news show's segment on the controversial gasoline additive "provocative'' and "inflammatory.''

"I thought they really jumped on this and made it an issue when we don't have all the information yet,'' said Nelson, a water supply specialist.

The Environmental Protection Agency, however, calls MTBE a possible human carcinogen.

Nelson said that although the EPA still hasn't developed a nationwide drinking water standard for MTBE, the DNR has been testing municipal well sites for the chemical as far back as 1994. So far it has been detected at nine sites -- none in Dane County -- but in amounts so minuscule that it's hardly cause for concern, he said.

"I think we're pretty much on top of the issue,'' he said, adding that "I think we should have a standard in place before we get real excited about this.''

David Denig-Chakroff, general manager of the Madison Water Utility, said the utility plans to begin testing for MTBE later this year.

"I knew it was being discussed by EPA as a possible contaminant,'' he said. "But the problems have been in areas where it's been used as an additive to resolve air pollution. And that's never been the case in Madison.''

Oddly enough, the highest MTBE levels in Wisconsin were found not in the southeastern part of the state, Nelson said, but at a site in Spring Green, which was contaminated by leaking underground gasoline storage tanks.

The levels ranged from 0.47 to 1.1 parts per billion, he said, which is believed to be well below the danger level and considerably below the levels found at sites in California that were the focus of the "60 Minutes'' report.

Water tainted with MTBE begins to taste funny and smell like turpentine at about 20 parts per billion, Nelson said. "But the EPA says you don't see negative health effects until at least 2,000 times greater than that.''

Whatever the case, it's too early to say just how serious the problem is in Wisconsin -- particularly since just a cupful of MTBE can contaminate a reservoir with 5 million gallons of water, says Eric Uram of the Madison-based Midwest office of the Sierra Club.

"Wisconsin being such a water-rich state, there's always the possibility MTBE could show up in places that haven't been identified yet,'' he said. He noted that minor spills at gas pumps are common and that "storm water definitely has the potential to wash some of that into our lakes and rivers.''

It's also important to keep in mind that California's testing mechanism for MTBE is more sophisticated than Wisconsin's, he said.

"They have a higher powered magnifying glass, if you want to use that analogy. It's much more comprehensive, thorough and complete.''

Uram said the Sierra Club supports a nationwide ban of MTBE.

"Secondly, we need to find a viable alternative,'' he said. "We also need to increase the mileage efficiency of cars and, at the same time, increase our reliance on mass transit'' so we can reduce our consumption of gasoline.

The "60 Minutes'' report noted that California is banning MTBE as of 2002 and that several other states are expected to follow suit.

"It's the Pandora's Box type of situation,'' Uram said. "We're better off closing the box and trying to mop up what little's out there rather than leaving it open and trying to control what does get out.''


-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), March 14, 2000


Thanks for the news. Hasn't this stuff already been banned in Canada, or am I thinking of something else.

-- gilda (jess@listbot.com), March 14, 2000.

I'm happy to say that, here in SW Oregon, we've never had this stuff in the gas. At the "city" stations which had to have "oxygenated" gas, ethanol was the additive instead.

Personally, I think this Nelson guy is acting like an idiot. He thinks we shouldn't worry about it until standards are developed? And how long will that take? And how much more of a problem will it be by that time?

Remember, when groundwater is contaminated, it is VERY difficult and VERY costly to clean it up. Sometimes it's essentially impossible to clean it up, in our lifetime.

-- jumpoff joe a.k.a. Al K. Lloyd (jumpoff@ekoweb.net), March 14, 2000.

No offense to you Al,

MTBE has been required for all automobile fuel for several years. It is in Oregon, as well as Hawaii, NY, etc... It is IN there.

MTBE = Man's nemesis... IMHO.

We did it to ourselves.

snorin' on the floor...

The Dog

-- The Dog (dogdesert@hotmail.com), March 14, 2000.

Dog, I where do you get that information? Here in Josephine County, the only gas stations required to have oxygenated fuel at all are withing the "airshed" of the county seat--Grants Pass. According to the DEQ folks I have talked to, the "city" stations used ethanol; no MTBE has ever been used here. Also, even the ethanol is only used seasonally. For that matter, our air quality has surpassed DEQ's requirements for the last year, and we won't even have ethanol in the "city" gasoline whenever DEQ gets the exemption written (they say it will take a year or two to write it--govenment efficiency at work.

Where do you live, Dog, and why do you think you have a bette line on "my" gasoline supply than I do?

Jumpoff Joe

-- jumpoff joe a.k.a. Al K. Lloyd (jumpoff@ekoweb.net), March 14, 2000.

You need to talk to the management of the refinery that made the gas... You do know WHICH refinery services your stations??? You do fill up at the same station all the time don't you? The talking heads in .gov have no clue what is actually in the fuel in the pumps. If the refinery that services your usual station is in California, you got MTBE...

Sounds like your city .gov is yanking your chain. MTBE costs a fraction of ethanol or methanol. Do you actuall think the refinery is going to use the more expensive commodity to sell at the same price???

Get real...

I am in NM.... We have lots of refineries... all use MTBE. We do not even check for emissions in my county and we STILL have MTBE.

Sounds like you might need to do some more research...

MTBE... Man's nemesis... We did it to ourselves.

scratchin' an itch...

The Dog

-- The Dog (dogdesert@hotmail.com), March 14, 2000.

Dog, I'm going to assume that my contacts at DEQ are on top of this one. A while back, when I first learned about the ground water/MTBE concerns, I contacted various people until I finally ended up at DEQ. They aren't even monitoring for it here, because it hasn't been used. If it had been, I feel sure they would be monitoring, for job security if nothing else (yes, I can be cynical)

Believe it or not, all gas additives are not only affected by the free market, Dog. It may be that the state government here was trying to promote alternative energy. We in Oregon are a pretty progressive state, as you may know. The beauty of ethanol as an oxygenator is that it's made from plants, rather than refined from god knows what vile product, like MTBE


-- jumpoff joe a.k.a. Al K. Lloyd (jumpoff@ekoweb.net), March 14, 2000.

Anyone from D-FW want to chime in?

http://greenspun.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg.tcl?msg_id=002lzG TEXAS--Spill Update, Toxins Found in Source of Dallas Water greenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

[Fair Use: For Education and Research Only] TOXINS FOUND IN SOURCE OF DALLAS WATER EPA SAYS DALLAS WATER SOURCE SHOWS LOW-TOXIN LEVELS By Brenda Rodriguez / The Dallas Morning News 03/14/2000 Authorities said Monday that contamination from last week's half- million-gallon gasoline spill is beginning to show up in Lake Tawakoni, a major water supply for Dallas. But they stressed that the gasoline additive MTBE had not reached hazardous levels. David Bary, a spokesman for the Dallas office of the Environmental Protection Agency, said that sampling of Lake Tawakoni, which provides 25 percent to 30 percent of Dallas' water supply, indicated low levels of the additive used to help clean the air in urban areas. "They are finding MTBE in Lake Tawakoni, but at levels, I want to emphasize this, at levels that are very way, way, below any health- based concerns," Mr. Bary said. "We'll have to wait and see the extent of the contamination and the authorities will have to decide at that point in time, given the information they have then, what is necessary. It is very premature to speculate what we would do because frankly we don't yet know what needs to be done." MTBE is water-soluble, and cleansing a water supply of it is expensive, officials said. The city of Dallas shut its intake from the lake Friday. The community of West Tawakoni had temporarily shut its intake from the lake Monday, but it restarted its water plant after tests indicated that the levels were not hazardous, according to West Tawakoni Mayor Ron Tanoos. About 500,000 gallons of gasoline spilled into East Caddo Creek north of Lake Tawakoni from a break in a pipeline early Friday. The spilled fuel has been contained behind booms and dams about four miles north of the lake. EPA officials said the MTBE may have gotten into the lake by flowing in the water under the booms. Mike Rickman, assistant director of water operations for Dallas, said the contamination showed up in samples taken in the northern edge of Lake Tawakoni where East Caddo Creek enters the lake. He said Dallas gets its water supply from the southwest corner of the lake, which hasn't indicated signs of contamination. While its intake from the lake is shut down, Dallas is performing annual maintenance on its pumps, he said. "We are still very concerned about it because we are worried about the overall impact it may have on the lake," Mr. Rickman said. Cleanup efforts continue at the spill site, which is west of Greenville, and could last at least a week, officials said. Mr. Bary said that about 8,000 of the 12,000 barrels of gasoline that spilled have been recovered. Each barrel contains about 42 gallons of gasoline. "That leaves 4,000 barrels of product unaccounted for, and we are sure that some of that has evaporated and some of it has seeped into soils," he said. "We'll continue cleanup efforts." Predicted rain Tuesday could slow the cleanup work, officials have said. The pipeline's owner and operator is Explorer Pipeline Co. of Tulsa, Okla. The line, built in 1973 and last tested three years ago, is buried about 4 feet underground. The gasoline represented about 2 percent of the daily flow through the 1,400-mile-long pipeline from Louisiana to Indiana. The company plans to send a portion of the pipeline that broke to the National Transportation and Safety Board in Washington, D.C., for analysis, said Lauren Brookey, a spokeswoman for Explorer Pipeline. Meanwhile, officials have begun to assess the damage left from the spill. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department authorities said several animals - including two raccoons, a skunk and a turtle - were found dead, possibly as a result of the fumes or from drinking water with high concentrations of gasoline. "The good side of that, again, is this creek is normally dry where the concentrations were real, real high, and there was no wildlife there," said Capt. Garry Collins, game warden for the Dallas district that includes Hunt County. "There was hardly any wildlife present." Determining the damage to the land and vegetation will take longer, Capt. Collins said. "It's going to be a long-term assessment," he said. http://dallasnews.com/metro/48652_GASSPILL14.html

-- charlie (cml@workmail.com), March 14, 2000.

Authorities speculate that the MTBE may have gotten into the lake by flowing under the booms? Well, I should say so. They said that it is water soluble, so of course it's going to flow under the booms or anywhere else the water goes, once it's in solution. You're not going to get it out of the water with a boom, for chrisakes.

By the way, do any of you folks know what happens to MTBE when it is burned in gasoline? I assume it must react in some way, and turn into some other compound, right? What compound would that be? And is it dangerous?

Anybody know the chemical formula for either MTBE or whatever it becomes when burned?

-- jumpoff joe a.k.a. Al K. Lloyd (jumpoff@ekoweb.net), March 15, 2000.

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