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Niki Collins-Queen

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Healthier Fuels, Healthier Water?
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Last edited: Friday, August 13, 2004
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Experts predict future MTBE water contamination crisis. MTBE has been found in 49 states and 20% of the urban wells in the USA.

Published in Atlanta’s Oracle2000 magazine.

The tap water smelled and tasted so strongly of turpentine that Sherry and her neighbors immediately called the Macon, Georgia Environmental Protection Division. After a thorough investigation the EPD told the Central Georgia residence that their well water was contaminated with a gasoline additive called Mythyl Teriary Butyl Ether or MTBE. They were stunned to learn that MTBE, a synthetic chemical, is the second most prevalent water contaminant in the USA and is one of the most widely distributed chemicals in the country. Most of the contamination occurs from leaks from underground gasoline storage tanks and once spilled MTBE moves faster and further in ground water than other contaminants because it is water-soluble. The EPD immediately looked for gasoline leaks at a nearby rock quarry and at the local gas stations but found none. Because MTBE causes nose and throat irritation, liver and kidney damage, skin rashes, gastrointestinal irritation, respiratory and nervous system problems and cancer in lab animals the EPD told the residence to drink bottled water and gave them a special filter for their showers. Health complaints have also been reported from airborne MTBE. About two hundred residents of Fairbanks, Alaska complained of headaches, dizziness, eye, nose and throat irritation, coughing, disorientation and nausea after MTBE was added to their gasoline. Studies by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Fairbanks, Alaska; Albany, New York: and Stamford, Connecticut have shown that concentration of MTBE in the blood is related to the concentration of MTBE in the air. People with the greatest exposure, such as gasoline service attendants, automobile mechanics and commuters, have the largest concentration of MTBE in their blood. Once in the air, MTBE can mix with precipitation that may carry the MTBE to the ground water or streams. It has been over two years since Sherry and her neighbors found MTBE in their water. They were outraged when told by the EPD and their County Commissioners that it was too costly to clean up their MTBE contaminated water or provide them with city water. “I’ve lost everything I’ve put into the house. The house is worthless with a contaminated domestic well,” Sherry explained. They are not alone in the state of Georgia. A US Geological survey done in the late 90s found that two out of 23 wells sampled in Atlanta were found to contain MTBE. Another survey near Lawrenceville, GA found MTBE at unexpected concentrations in bedrock wells. The Central Georgia residence learned that MTBE has been used as an octane enhancer in gasoline since the late 70s and an emission reduction agent since 1990 when Congress passed the Clean Air Act. One cup of MTBE is found in every ten gallons of gas and it takes only one cup of MTBE to contaminate five million gallons of water. The city of Santa Monica, California has not been able to use their municipal supply wells since 1996 and purchase replacement water from the Colorado River. South Lake Tahoe had to shut down a third of their wells when they found MTBE in their drinking water. The EPD traced gasoline leaks to six gas stations. The residence of Glennville, California, with a population of 300 in 1977, went out of business and moved away when they discovered MTBE in their wells from a leak in the towns gas station’s storage tank. According to a report on the CBS program “60 minutes” aired in January 2000 MTBE has been found in 49 states, including Georgia, and 20% of the urban wells in the USA. The 42 million Americans who get water from private wells are particularly at risk. Cities who use surface water like rivers and reservoirs are safe (we don’t know for how long) as MTBE vaporizes when exposed to air and sunlight. Owners of private wells in New York, California, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Florida, North Carolina and other states are currently involved in a lawsuit against the Petroleum Industry because of the MTBE contaminate. The city of Santa Monica and South Tahoe won big settlements from oil and chemical companies to help restore MTBE-poisoned supplies. Some environmental experts are predicting MTBE will be the biggest environmental crisis of the next decade. When California banned the use of MTBE in 1999 Methanex, a Canadian company that is the worlds largest producer of the key ingredient in the gasoline additive MTBE, sued the US government for $970 million for its potential lost profits. How can that happen? An obscure provision called Chapter 11 hidden in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) allows corporations in the USA, Canada and Mexico to challenge governmental laws aimed at protecting public safety, health and the environment. The people who have been affected by MTBE were outraged. But they are helpless to do anything. A NAFTA secret tribunal made up of unelected bureaucrats will decide the Methanex case and although the taxpayers foot the bill it is closed to the public. Bill Moyers in a recent PBS documentary titled “Trading Democracy” points out if Methenex wins, the US government will have the choice of paying a polluter almost a billion dollars not to pollute, or allowing toxic chemicals in the drinking water of its citizens. But the ramifications for the public go far beyond the loss of taxpayers dollars, it hobbles the authority of the government and state officials to act in the broader public interest. Already there are at least 27 similar cases filed under NAFTA's Chapter 11, where corporations attacked the USA, Canada and Mexico's health, safety and environmental laws. The April 2001 "Multinational Monitor" called NAFTA's investor "rights" a corporate dream and a citizen nightmare. Amazingly, the Bush Administration is now in negotiations to expand this dangerous NAFTA provision to 31 countries. The House passed a trade promotion authority (TPA) bill, HR 3005 also known as the "fast-track" in December that establishes an expanded framework for NAFTA's free trade. But astonishingly, there are no provisions for addressing the Chapter 11 problem. This Bill is a threat to democracy and will set the stage to further erode our countries ability to protect its citizens. For more information see Since there is no Federal mandate to test for MTBE many states are implementing their own tests to determine if MTBE is present at gasoline storage sites and in the public water supply. Georgia is not one of them. A spokesman for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said they are hesitant to require testing since there are currently no enforceable regulatory standards. Scott Starr, a Senior Engineer in the State of Georgia says Georgia’s use of monitored natural attenuation (allowing the MTBE in the groundwater to be “cleaned-up” by natural biological and physiological processes) does not work. MTBE is not readily biodegradable, is less likely to absorb soil, and it continues to migrate to off-site groundwater. Clean water is a basic right and is a necessity for all life. Let’s keep Georgia watershed and people healthy by asking our government to phase out MTBE as a gasoline additive and to test for MTBE in our wells, ground water and around gasoline storage tanks. Where gasoline spills happen the perpetrators should be subjected to heavy fines and held accountable for cleanup and damages. Also ask all your elected officials to say NO to the "fast track" bill and to stop expanding the failures of NAFTA.

The Bush administration "quietly shelved" the Clinton-era regulatory action on MTBE. The three companies that produce more than half of all MTBE have contributed more than $1 million to republican candidates—including Bush.

The Bush administration "quietly shelved" the Clinton-era regulatory action on MTBE in Feb. 2004. The three companies that produce more than half of all MTBE have contributed more than $1 million to republican candidates—including Bush.

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