R.I. Governor Signs Bill To Eliminate MTBE From Gasoline; Pennsylvania Legislators Seek Ban

Rhode Island Gov. Donald L. Carcieri (R) has signed legislation that prohibits gasoline additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) from being added to gasoline sold in Rhode Island. The new law will help to protect groundwater supplies from gasoline that spills or leaks from underground storage tanks, the governor's office stated.

The elimination of MTBE from gasoline will take effect on June 1, 2007. The gasoline additive is suspected to have contaminated the drinking water for about 4,000 residents of Pascoag in 2001. MTBE has also affected private wells in Glocester, North Smithfield, Richmond, South Kingstown and Tiverton.

MTBE is a chemical compound used as a fuel additive in gasoline. By adding oxygen to gasoline, MTBE helps gasoline burn more completely and thereby reduces air contamination by lowering carbon monoxide levels. When spilled or leaked, MTBE moves rapidly through the groundwater and remains there for an indefinite period, the governor's office stated. Even small quantities of MTBE-added gasoline can render the water undrinkable due to its taste and color.

MTBE contamination became an issue in 2001 when Pascoag residents noticed a funny odor and taste to their drinking water. Tests confirmed high levels of MTBE and other gasoline components that were traced to a leak from a gas station. The Pascoag Water District and the Department of Environmental Management shut down the village well field and provided drinking water to about 4,000 village residents.

"We have seen how MTBE-added gasoline can affect the drinking water in communities around the state. With this law, we are ensuring that our groundwater supply remains safe from MTBE contamination," Carcieri said. "No Rhode Islander should have to worry if the water coming from their tap is safe."

Carcieri introduced the MTBE Elimination Act in February that was similar to the legislation that he signed into law on July 6.

Rhode Island is the 22nd state in the nation to ban MTBE from gasoline. New York and Connecticut have successfully implemented MTBE bans in their states. Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont have enacted similar MTBE bans that will take effect in 2007.

A Pennsylvania lawmaker seeks to advance legislation that would ban the sale of MTBE in his state. State Sen. Joe Conti (R-Bucks) introduced a measure (Senate Bill 824) on July 5 that calls for a five-year phase-out of MTBE in liquid fuels. "MTBE has contaminated the groundwater in at least 19 counties across our state, with Bucks and Montgomery Counties among the worst polluted. This is an environmental hazard that must be stopped before it spreads," Conti said.

The state House of Representatives has introduced two bills banning MTBE as well: House Bill 620 (Godshall, R-Montgomery) and House Bill 718 (George, D-Clearfield).

Over the past few years, however, animal research has shown that MTBE emissions can be carcinogenic. Consumption of MTBE has also been linked to increased rates of cancer in animals and, pending ongoing study, potentially poses a similar risk in humans.

According to Conti, MTBE's turpentine-like flavor is very difficult to remove once it gets into a private well or public water supply.

The same day the Rhode Island governor signed the legislation, the American Petroleum Institute released a study that finds the costs of cleaning up gasoline spills containing MTBE nationwide are almost completely covered by federal and state government cleanup funds, insurance or responsible parties.

At most, the study concluded, there are $1.5 billion in costs that may not be accounted for from established funds that are already cleaning up MTBE from underground storage ground sites, or in private or public water wells.

The study, completed for API by consultants Mike Martinson of Delta Environmental Consultants and Jim Davidson of Exponent, analyzed the costs of cleaning up MTBE gasoline spills at underground storage tank sites and removing the gasoline additive from public water supplies and private wells.

API stated that the study directly contradicts assertions by the American Water Works Associations and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies that MTBE cleanup costs will run between $25 and $85 billion.

In general, the study done for API found that 4 percent or less of underground storage tank cleanup costs might not be covered by existing sources of funds.

Additional information on MTBE can be found at http://www.epa.gov/mtbe.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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