Study of gasoline additive wins nod
BY HALLYE JORDAN
San Jose Mercury News, Sept. 16, 1997, p. 3B
SACRAMENTO -- California appears poised to spend $500,000 to study MTBE, a controversial fuel additive that is supposed to make gasoline burn more cleanly but which critics say not only has failed to clean the air but also threatens the state's water supply with a probable carcinogen.
The bill authorizing the study was approved over the weekend in one of the many 11th-hour deals marking the end of the legislative session. It now goes to Gov. Pete Wilson's desk.
Supporters of using the additive MTBE -- or methyl tertiary butyl ether -- say critics are being harsh and hysterical. The Western States Petroleum Association notes that MTBE has been detected in only 1 to 3 percent of water supplies and even then in concentrations "well below the most conservative health level."
The petroleum association also said a study by the National Academy of Sciences confirms that MTBE poses no greater health risk than conventional gasoline.
In Santa Clara County, some of the 310 test wells that surround water storage tanks have shown MTBE contamination, but "it hasn't leaked into the drinking water yet," said Robert Gross, a director of the Santa Clara Valley Water District and a longtime critic of MTBE. "I feel we have control over it, but that's like playing poker with 10 wild cards."
The chemical has been used in small amounts as an octane booster since 1979, but its use was increased after 1990, when Congress required oil companies to use air-cleaning additives to reduce smog-causing vehicle emissions.
MTBE, a byproduct of petroleum production, became that additive. Where once oil companies had to pay to have MTBE hauled off as toxic waste, they now could produce it -- making $3 billion a year -- and take credit as environmentalists for recycling and producing cleaner air.
The chemical dissolves in water and can be pumped through gas distribution lines, but it doesn't evaporate easily and is not biodegradable. The oil companies defend its use, noting that air quality has dramatically improved since the introduction of cleaner-burning gasoline. They say the 15 percent reduction in emissions equals taking 3.5 million cars off the road.
But Gross and other critics of MTBE give far more credit to the evolution of the modern car for emitting less pollution.
"Technology has changed so dramatically through computerization," Gross said. "Who's the hero here? I'll put my money on the automobile rather that a toxic byproduct that (oil companies) used to have to pay to have hauled off."
The MTBE legislation would require the University of California to study the human health and environmental risks and benefits of the additive and report the findings to the governor no later than Jan. 1, 1999. The bill by Sen. Richard Mountjoy, R-Arcadia, was approved by both houses unanimously and sent to the governor early Saturday.
Mountjoy, one of the Senate's most conservative members, had teamed with Tom Hayden, one of the most liberal environmentalists in the Legislature, to push for a complete ban on the chemical, pending the outcome of the study. Despite letters and petitions of support from more than 100,000 people and more than 200 small businesses, the measure hit wall after wall before it finally was watered down to a study bill.
"It's still a good bill. It's still something that needed to be done," Mountjoy said. "We have got to find out what comes out of the exhaust pipe when you burn MTBE. What is the health risk if it gets into the water?"