Toxic Gas Additive MTBE
Threat To US Drinking
Water Under EPA Study
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A new panel of scientists and public health experts will recommend how to protect U.S. drinking water from the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), the Environmental Protection Agency said Friday. The chemical, which is suspected by environmental groups of causing cancer, is estimated to be leaking from some 20,000 underground storage tanks in California.
In a letter to California Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat locked in a tight race for re-election next Tuesday, the EPA also said it would fund a $1 million pilot project in California to find ways of cleaning up contaminated drinking water supplies. The EPA will assemble a panel of experts in public health, automative fuels and environmental science to study whether continued use of MTBE in gasoline is safe. The panel will give its recommendations to the EPA in six months, said the agency's assistant administrator, Robert Perciasepe.
``We must greatly improve our abilities to prevent and remedy releases of petroleum products, particularly those which could affect public drinking water,'' Perciasepe said in the letter. Boxer last month urged Congress to phase out the national use of MTBE, and California officials are studying a possible end to statewide use. Last year, Santa Monica was forced to close half its water supply because of MTBE contamination. Fuel industry groups have said that banning MTBE in California alone could cost consumers as much as $1.3 billion annually in higher gasoline costs.
The industry, which prefers tougher regulation of fuel storage tanks, said cleaner burning fuel containing MTBE has eliminated 50 percent of benzene in auto emissions and helped reduce air pollution. The use of MTBE as a fuel additive developed rapidly after 1990, when Congress ordered the refining industry to develop more oxygenated fuels to reduce air emissions.