MTBE Horror - Cleaning Soil
And Ground Water To
Cost $30 Billion
By Dan Shapley
Poughkeepsie Journal

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 1990s.
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 $29 billion.
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:
- is a site maintained by the law firm Lewis Saul & Associates dedicated to MTBE. It includes maps of New York counties.
- is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency site that includes information about MTBE.
- 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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