- HYDE PARK - A gasoline additive
intended to limit air pollution has not only proved ineffective, but has
also contaminated thousands of drinking water supplies nationwide. The
cost of cleaning all that pollution has been estimated at close to $30
billion. The cost to human health is still unknown.
- MTBE, or methyl tertiary-butyl ether, has become a household
word in the Greenbush area of Hyde Park, which has the dubious distinction
as having the most widespread contamination known in New York state.
- While Greenbush's pollution may be the worst documented
in New York, the chemical is causing problems to neighborhoods across the
county, state and nation.
- When John Gardner of Hyde Park thinks about the MTBE
pollution in his neighborhood, he envisions a long list of culprits.
- ''I don't know if anyone's really going to do anything,''
Gardner said. ''The people who are supposed to be in there fighting for
you aren't really doing it.''
- 100 Local Wells Dirty
- More than 100 wells in Dutchess and Ulster counties are
contaminated by MTBE. The state has pointed to leaking underground petroleum
storage tanks in most cases.
- Nationwide, it's estimated that 8 percent of underground
water supplies are contaminated -- and MTBE is five times more likely to
be found in areas like Dutchess County, where federal law requires that
gasoline be formulated with chemicals intended to reduce air pollution
from car emissions.
- In New York state alone, there have been more than 1,800
reported spills involving MTBE, according to Toxics Targeting, an Ithaca-based
company that maps environmental problems based on state and federal data.
- People who discover the pollution in their drinking water
seem to compile an ever-growing list of complaints targeted at oil companies
and every level of government.
- The federal government in 1990 set in motion wider use
of the chemical. While MTBE has been used in gasoline since 1979, its use
grew with the Clean Air Act of 1990, which required gasoline sold in polluted
areas to have a higher oxygen content. MTBE is the oxygenate preferred
by refiners, and its content in gasoline rose dramatically through the
- Lawsuits against gasoline companies allege the additive
was favored over others -- such as corn-based ethanol or other ethers --
because MTBE, a by- product of a refining process, is cheaper. Several
Hyde Park residents are among those who are suing oil companies over contamination.
- It was thought gasoline with a higher oxygen content
would reduce smog-causing emissions, but the National Research Council
released reports in 1996 and 1999 showing that oxygenates don't significantly
reduce smog. And the reformulated gasoline is particularly ineffective
in newer, well-maintained vehicles.
- ''The data shows that you don't get a whole lot of benefit,''
said Ray Wassel, a senior program manager at the National Research Council
who directed both studies.
- Ethanol, the second most-used oxygenate, was no more
effective. Other oxygenates were not studied.
- New York has ordered the oil industry to phase out the
use of MTBE by 2004, but some oxygenate will have to be used unless Congress
changes U.S. law.
- California has run into difficulties in its efforts to
phase out MTBE. Federal regulators have refused to allow California to
discontinue using oxygenated gasoline.
- Unlike other gasoline constituents -- some of which are
also suspected of causing serious health problems -- MTBE is especially
soluble in water. That means when a gasoline spill or leak occurs, MTBE
is able to infiltrate drinking water more easily and spread farther.
- It also makes gasoline spills more costly to clean up.
- It costs about $3,000 to install a filter at a home to
cleanse water, and another $3,000 per year to monitor it, according to
Cesare Manfredi, regional spill engineer for the DEC.
- At that cost, it's easy to see how MTBE, which spreads
so much farther and faster than other constituents of gasoline, drives
up the cost of addressing spills.
- The groundwater around a spill must also be pumped from
the ground and cleansed, at a cost sometimes measured in millions of dollars.
- New York state tries to have those responsible for pollution
pay for the cleanup, but the process can take a long time, leaving taxpayers
responsible for the costs at least in the short-term.
- A U.S. Senate committee has authorized spending $400
million to clean up MTBE contamination, but a report by Komex H20 Science,
a California environmental company, estimates the price tag is closer to
- The biggest threat is posed by leaking underground petroleum
storage tanks, such as those at gasoline stations, though other sources
of contamination also exist.
- Even a gallon of gasoline spilled from a lawn mower can
contaminate a home's well because MTBE is so soluble. The DEC says even
residual gasoline in tankers can contaminate home heating fuel with MTBE,
which, in turn, could pollute drinking water if spilled. That's what the
DEC believes happened on Schlueter Drive in East Fishkill.
- In Hyde Park, leaking underground gasoline storage tanks
are suspected of causing contamination to more than 80 home wells. The
DEC has labeled four gas station properties on Violet Avenue as potentially
responsible for the pollution. The DEC believes leaking pipes at a gas
station on Route 52 in East Fishkill are responsible for another instance
of contamination in a residential neighborhood there.
- A federal law requires all underground fuel tanks be
removed or replaced with new corrosive-resistant tanks. The initiative,
which has been in the works nearly 20 years, has reduced the number of
tanks nationwide by more than half, according to the EPA, but tanks --
both registered and unregistered -- continue to have problems.
- Some old tanks resemble ''rusted soup cans'' when they're
finally removed, according to John Kushwara, acting chief of the Water
Compliance Branch of the EPA in the region.
- The EPA estimates about 70 to 75 percent of New York's
tanks are now in compliance with the more strict guidelines, which include
double-lined fiberglass hulls.
- ''The idea is to stop them from leaking before they start
leaking, so we don't have to pay for it after,'' Kushwara said.
- Gas stations must test their tanks to make sure they
aren't leaking. Those that don't report to the state are sent computer-generated
letters telling them that they're out of compliance.
- Once a month, Manfredi said, DEC representatives travel
to gas stations to do inspections and penalize those out of compliance.
- Even then, it can take time to address problems. In 25
years, the DEC identified at least a dozen spills along a half-mile stretch
of Violet Avenue -- also known as Route 9G -- in the Greenbush area of
Hyde Park. But widespread contamination was discovered only a year ago.
- The DEC says earlier spills were addressed and are not
causing the present problems.
- Some residents have doubts about that.
- The DEC has also acknowledged that it and its contractors
have failed to test all home water filters routinely. In some cases, that
means residents have unknowingly drunk tainted water after having a filter
installed in their home.
- In addition to paying for costly cleanups, Kushwara said
money also is needed to prevent leaks and spills.
- The EPA has nine people on staff to inspect gas stations
for compliance with federal guidelines in Region 2, which includes New
York, New Jersey and the Caribbean. The DEC has only a handful for the
hundreds of gas stations in our area.
- ''It's pretty common across the states, that there are
not enough people or not enough resources devoted to this problem,'' Kushwara
said. ''It's all a matter of competing priorities.''
- Relevant Web links For more information about MTBE, visit
these Web sites:
- - www.mtbecontamination.com
is a site maintained by the law firm Lewis Saul & Associates dedicated
to MTBE. It includes maps of New York counties.
- - www.epa.gov/safewater
is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency site that includes information
- - www.toxicstargeting.com
is the Web site of an Ithaca-based company that maps environmental problems
based on state and federal data. The Web site includes information about
the contamination in Hyde Park and elsewhere.
- From Bruce W. Richer 12-3-1
- Jeff, One small community in RI has had there water supply
contaminated by a suspected "leaky gas station". The residents
have been warned to not even bathe in the water while the state has been
providing bottles water of about 6 gallons per day.
- But what will happen as we get to the point where everybodys
water becomes contaminated. The next time you go shopping durring a rain
storm, you might notice the water running through streets and parkinglots.
You will notice an oily residue which is obviously gasoline runooff. This
runoff is slowly but surely contaminating all of our water.
- I believe that this is a deliberate move to turn water
into the next most valuable commodity. Clean water may become the last
straw in breaking our financial backs. The cost of filtering all our water
will exceed 30 billion by unfathomable dimensions. Private well owners
will find themselves in desparate need of either a filter system, or new
access to already overburdenned public water supplys.
- This subject should top our list of demands upon our
elected officials to force the banning of mbte and to move toward a clean
energy economy based on something like hydrogen.
- The Idea of lawsuits against oil companies who will only
raise the cost of gasoline is rediculous
- I believe that this contamination was deliberate in order
to monopolize the water industry.
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