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November 30, 2003

Fuel additive found in municipal wells
by Jake Thompson, Omaha World-Herald

WASHINGTON - - MTBE, the gasoline additive that sank a far-reaching energy bill last week, has been found in municipal water supplies in Nebraska and Iowa, but in much smaller amounts than elsewhere.

"So far, we're very fortunate," said Anne Pamperl, a drinking water specialist in the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

Nebraska and Iowa water supplies show some MTBE contamination, though not as much as in the Northeast, where the additive was used heavily to reduce air pollution.

Nationally, MTBE has been found to have tainted 1,513 drinking water systems, triggering dozens of lawsuits in 28 states, Iowa included, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington advocacy group. The suits seek to recoup the costs of cleaning up water supplies.

Eight communities in Nebraska, including Ruskin, Central City, West Point and Scribner, have detected small amounts of MTBE in drinking water serving about 10,000 residents. None have filed lawsuits.

In Iowa, Sioux City, Ida Grove and Galva recently found low levels of MTBE contamination and higher levels of another petroleum byproduct, benzene, a known carcinogen.

Ida Grove and Galva switched to alternative sources of water, and Sioux City is relying on wells where no contamination has been found, a state official said. All three have filed lawsuits.

Legislation overhauling the nation's energy policies collapsed last week in Congress over a disagreement about whether to offer oil companies protection from lawsuits stemming from MTBE contamination.

MTBE, or methyl tertiary-butyl ether, is added to gasoline to make it burn hotter and cleaner and thus cause less air pollution. But MTBE leaks quickly from underground fuel storage tanks, contaminating groundwater supplies. The substance is suspected of causing cancer.

The energy legislation dealt with much more than MTBE. For instance, the final version would have required increased production of ethanol.

In the end, though, MTBE sank it. Oil-state lawmakers added a provision shielding oil companies from MTBE liability lawsuits. Key Republican senators in the Northeast demanded that the lawsuit ban be dropped. The ban's proponents refused, and the legislation was doomed.

The liability protection would have blocked the Iowa lawsuits.

MTBE producers have argued they deserve liability protection because the federal government required them to use MTBE to reduce air pollution, particularly in the Northeast and on the West Coast.

Foes counter that alternative fuels were available, such as ethanol, although that corn-based fuel has been relatively expensive to ship from the main production facilities in the Midwest.

Gasoline sold in Iowa and Nebraska contained little MTBE. Even so, Iowa water officials have picked up small amounts of MTBE groundwater contamination at various sites.

In Ruskin, one of the eight Nebraska communities with an MTBE-contaminated water supply, state government helped dig a new well to supply residents with untainted water.

Contamination levels in the other seven communities were less than 5 parts per billion, well below the federal recommended maximum health advisory levels of between 20 and 40 parts per billion.

In addition to those eight communities, monitoring begun in 1999 around underground fuel storage tanks has found 122 sites where MTBE is leaching into groundwater, according to the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.

David Chambers, supervisor of the environmental quality petroleum remediation section, said the state has cleaned up hundreds of other sites where various petroleum-based chemicals, including MTBE, were detected.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering establishing a new, tougher standard for MTBE contamination in drinking water, which probably would cause Nebraska and Iowa officials to identify more sites as troublesome, state officials said.

"If the EPA comes up with a new standard, and I'm almost certain they will, we'll probably have some people impacted by it," said Diane Moles, executive officer for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

She said it's odd that Congress considered protecting oil companies from lawsuits.

"It would be an unprecedented move," Moles said. "Normally, the polluter pays."

The full extent of MTBE contamination in Nebraska and Iowa may not be known. Nebraska still had 3,220 sites near underground storage tanks to probe, while Iowa had 2,704, according to a 2002 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office.

The agency, Congress' investigative arm, found that MTBE contamination is widespread and increasingly found in groundwater and surface water such as rivers or streams.

"If we've got an underground tank, it's going to contaminate drinking water eventually," said Ken Cook, head of the Environmental Working Group. "I think we've just begun to find out how severe the contamination is."

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