Friday, September 28, 2007

MTBE - the saga continues

By Faith Chatham - DFWRCC - September 30, 2007
Dallas and Denton counties drinking water supply is threatened by the route selected by TxDOT for FM 2499. Despite over 3000 citizens objecting to the route at public meetings in 2003, TxDOT is scheduled to open bidding for Section 4 of FM2499 in October.

A Denton County Taskforce requested that this route be expedited. A draft EIS (Environmental Impact Study) was set aside for a much more brief, less extensive EA (Environmental Assessment). When the EA was performed, there was flooding in the region and arial assessment was substituted fon on the ground assessments. The EA (and TxDOT) refuses to consider the impact to human life in their EA.

Alarming levels of MTBE have already been found in Lake Lewisville. How it got there is unknown. Scientific evidence shows that water is contaminated by leaking gasoline tanks and gasoline spills. Many states have banned MTBE. Texas has not. Our gasoline still contains MTBE. Cars and trucks and tankers traveling over tributaries to the drinking water of millions of people heightens the risk of further MTBE contamination.

A brief search brings up more information than most of us care to know about MTBE.

Wikipedia describes MTBE:
Methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) is a chemical compound with molecular formula C5H12O. MTBE is a volatile, flammable and colorless liquid that is highly soluble in water. MTBE has a minty odour vaguely reminiscent of diethyl ether, leading to unpleasant taste and odour in water. MTBE is a gasoline additive, used as an oxygenate and to raise the octane number, although its use has declined in the United States in response to environmental and health concerns. It has been found to easily pollute large quantities of groundwater when gasoline with MTBE is spilled or leaked at gas stations. MTBE is also used in organic chemistry as a relatively inexpensive solvent with properties comparable to diethyl ether but with a higher boiling point and lower solubility in water. It is also used medically to dissolve gallstones.

Methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) is a chemical compound with molecular formula C5H12O. MTBE is a volatile, flammable and colorless liquid that is highly soluble in water. MTBE has a minty odour vaguely reminiscent of diethyl ether, leading to unpleasant taste and odour in water. MTBE is a gasoline additive, used as an oxygenate and to raise the octane number, although its use has declined in the United States in response to environmental and health concerns. It has been found to easily pollute large quantities of groundwater when gasoline with MTBE is spilled or leaked at gas stations. MTBE is also used in organic chemistry as a relatively inexpensive solvent with properties comparable to diethyl ether but with a higher boiling point and lower solubility in water. It is also used medically to dissolve gallstones.


The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is a United States federal law passed by the U.S. Congress on December 16, 1974. It is the main federal law that ensures safe drinking water for Americans. With this act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is allowed to set the standards for drinking water quality and oversees all of the states, localities, and water suppliers who implement these standards.

SDWA applies to every public water system in the United States. There are currently more than 160,000 public water systems providing water to almost all Americans at some time in their lives...
Most refiners have chosen to use MTBE over other oxygenates primarily for its blending characteristics and for economic reasons. It is produced from natural gas, which is less expensive than oil.

Since 1992, MTBE has been used at higher concentrations in some gasoline to fulfill the oxygenate requirements set by the United States Congress in Clean Air Act amendments; however, since 1999, in California and other locations MTBE has begun to be phased out because of groundwater contamination (California Air Resources Board, 2004). Due to its higher solubility in water MTBE moves more quickly than other fuel components (California Air Resources Board, 2004). The Energy Policy Act of 2005 reduces the federal requirement for oxygen content in reformulated gasoline.

In 1995 high levels of MTBE were unexpectedly discovered in the water wells of Santa Monica, California, and the U.S. Geological Survey reported detections.[3] Subsequent U.S. findings indicate tens of thousands of contaminated sites in water wells distributed across the country. As per toxicity alone, MTBE is not classified as a hazard for the environment. The maximum contaminant level of MTBE in drinking water has not yet been established by the EPA. The leakage problem is partially attributed to the lack of effective regulations for underground storage tanks, but spillage from overfilling remains an important upset scenario. As an ingredient in unleaded gasoline, MTBE is the most soluble part. When dissolved in groundwater, MTBE will lead the contaminant plume with the remaining components such as benzene, toluene, etc. to follow. Thus the discovery of MTBE in public groundwater wells indicates that the contaminant source was a gasoline release. The MTBE concentrations used in the EU (usually 1.0–1.6%) and allowed (maximum 5%) in Europe are lower than in California.[4

The high solubility and persistence of MTBE cause it to travel faster and farther than many other gasoline components when released into an aquifer. It is also released whenever gasoline with MTBE is spilled on the ground. Because it is so water soluble, it easily moves through soil, polluting both surface and groundwater.

MTBE has widespread occurrences in the aquifers of North America, where the majority of groundwater chemistry data has been acquired. As one regional example, the San Francisco Bay Area Regional Water Quality Control Board has indicated MTBE is one of the groundwater pollutants of most widespread concern in this major metropolitan region of the USA.

The IARC, a cancer research agency of the World Health Organization, maintains MTBE is not classifiable as a human carcinogen. However, exposure to large doses of MTBE has significant non-cancer-related health risks. MTBE ruins the taste of water at concentrations of 5 – 15 µg/l[9] so that significant concentrations of MTBE in drinking water are detectable.

MTBE is not classified as a human carcinogen in low exposure levels by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). However, it has been shown to cause kidney lesions in animals. As an ether, MTBE acts as an emulsifier, increasing the solubility of other, harmful components of gasoline (for example, the known carcinogen benzene). It thus may increase the risk of contamination by other compounds. MTBE is biodegraded very slowly, remaining in water for decades or more. In addition some MTBE degrades in blood to the associated alcohol, tert-butanol, with a greatly increased residence time. The prolonged presence of this alcohol derivative is not fully understood.

Some industry advocates of MTBE contend that it has little provable effect on humans, although its manufacturers did not test it for its effects on human health before introducing it as an additive. As of 2007, researchers have limited data about the health effects from ingestion of MTBE. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has concluded that available data are not adequate to quantify health risks of MTBE at low exposure levels in drinking water, but that the data support the conclusion that MTBE is a potential human carcinogen at high doses.

United States

Because MTBE is so highly soluble in water, it is very difficult to clean up. Estimates of the cost of removing MTBE from groundwater and soil contamination range from $1[12] to $30[13]billion, including removing the compound from aquifers and municipal water supplies and replacing leaky underground oil tanks. Some controversy centers on who will pay the costs of this remediation. In one case, the cost to oil companies to clean up the MTBE in wells belonging to Santa Monica is estimated to exceed $200 million.[14]

Recent state laws have been passed to ban MTBE in certain areas. California and New York, which together accounted for 40% of U.S. MTBE consumption, banned the chemical starting January 1, 2004, and as of September, 2005, twenty-five states had signed legislation banning MTBE. (A table of state by state information, as of 2002, is available at the United States Department of Energy website.[15]

In 2000, the U.S. EPA drafted plans to phase out the use of MTBE nationwide over four years. Upon taking office, the Bush administration cancelled those plans.

In April of 2002, a California jury found several oil companies guilty of irresponsibly manufacturing and distributing MTBE, stating that the companies acted with malice in failing to warn customers about the dangers of MTBE contamination. As of fall 2006, hundreds of other lawsuits are still pending regarding MTBE contamination of public and private drinking water supplies. Most of these lawsuits have been consolidated into "multi-district litigation" before Judge Shira A. Scheindlin in the federal district court for the Southern District of New York.

The Environmental Working group differs from Wikipedia on the Energy Policy Act.
Wikipedia states:
The Energy Policy Act of 2005, passed in the House on April 21, 2005, did not include a provision for shielding MTBE manufacturers from water contamination lawsuits. This provision was first proposed in 2003 and had been thought by some to be a priority of Tom DeLay and Rep. Joe Barton, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. This bill did include a provision that gives MTBE makers, including some major oil companies, $2 billion in transition assistance as MTBE is phased out over the next nine years. Due to opposition in the Senate, the conference report dropped all MTBE provisions. The final bill was passed by both houses and signed into law by President Bush. The lack of MTBE liability protection is resulting in a switchover to the use of ethanol as a gasoline additive, which is in limited supply in April 2006. Some traders and consumer advocates are blaming this for an increase in gasoline prices.

The Environmental Working Group states:
The House Republican leadership is considering legislation to strictly limit oil company liability for contaminating groundwater in at least 28 states with the toxic gasoline additive MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether. The oil industry and its friends in Congress say it's only fair to shield MTBE makers from lawsuits, since, they claim, it was the government that mandated oil companies to reformulate gas with MTBE in the first place, to clean the air.
The liability waiver is a top priority for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Energy and Commerce Committee chair Joe Barton, both of Texas, home of most the oil and chemical companies that produced MTBE until contamination problems prompted California and 16 other states to ban it. The waiver, included in a draft of the energy bill from Barton's committee, would prohibit lawsuits charging that the additive was a faulty product that the industry knew would leak from storage tanks and contaminate water supplies — the exact argument two California communities used in court to win multimillion-dollar settlements to clean up the contamination and secure new supplies. The bill not only closes the door to new defective-product lawsuits, but throws out of court all cases filed since Sept. 5, 2003. The bill bans MTBE nationwide in 2014, but in the interim gives the chemical's manufacturers $250 million a year — $2 billion total — in "transition assistance grants" to convert their facilities to other products.

Recently, evidence has surfaced that a decade ago, House Commerce Committee lawyers told members that using MTBE was the industry's choice, not the Environmental Protection Agency's requirement. A June 5, 1995 memo from staff counsel to a Commerce Committee subcommittee that included Barton explained that the EPA's Reformulated Gasoline Program (RFG) did not mandate or favor MTBE (made from methanol) over any other oxygenate that could be used to reformulate gasoline:
Following release of the memo by Rep. Henry Waxman of California, a spokesman for Barton said the congressman still believes that oil companies were forced to produce MTBE when the federal government required the development of additives that make gasoline burn more cleanly.

But a different story emerges from internal industry documents and depositions, made public in recent successful lawsuits brought by cities and a California public inerest group called Communities for a Better Environment that want oil companies to pay to clean up water made undrinkable and unhealthy by MTBE. The documents, provided to EWG by CBE's lawyers Scott Summy and Celeste Evangelisti, show that the oil industry itself lobbied hard for the MTBE mandate because they made the additive and stood to profit.

In a 1995 deposition, a top ARCO executive admitted under oath, "The EPA did not initiate reformulated gasoline...." He clarified that "the oil industry... brought this [MTBE] forward as an alternative to what the EPA had initially proposed."

By 1986, the oil industry was adding 54,000 barrels of MTBE to gasoline each day. By 1991, one year before the EPA requirements went into effect, the industry was using more than 100,000 barrels of MTBE per day in reformulated gasoline. [View document] Yet secret oil company studies, conducted at least as early as 1980, showed the industry knew that MTBE contaminated ground water virtually everywhere it was used.

Oil companies are pressing Congress for liability protection because hundreds of communities have serious MTBE contamination problems, and company documents are coming back to haunt them in the courtroom. In April, the documents convinced a California jury to find Shell, Texaco, Tosco, Lyondell Chemical (ARCO Chemical), and Equilon Enterprises liable for selling a defective product (gasoline with MTBE) while failing to warn of its pollution hazard, forcing a $60 million settlement with the water district for South Lake Tahoe.


More from Wikipedia:

Certain patents important in the manufacture of MTBE are not held by American companies; for example, United States patent 5536886, Process for preparing alkyl ethers,[20] is owned by the Finnish company Neste. The same corporation also went on to patent the replacement of the MTBE process, an octane production process trademarked NExOCTANE.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently lists methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) as a candidate for a maximum contaminant level (MCL) in drinking water. MCL's are determined by the EPA using toxicity data.
The SDWA requires EPA to establish National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs) for contaminants that may cause adverse public health effects. The regulations include both mandatory levels (Maximum Contaminant Levels, or MCLs) and nonenforceable health goals (Maximum Contaminant Level Goals, or MCLGs) for each included contaminant. MCLGs have extra significance because they can be used under Superfund as Applicable or Relevant and Appropriate Requirements (ARARs) in NPL cleanups.

The 1986 SDWA amendments required EPA to apply future NPDWRs to both community and non-transient non-community water systems when it evaluated and revised current regulations. The first case in which this was applied was the final rule on July 8, 1987 (52 FR 25690). At that time NPDWRs were promulgated for certain synthetic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and applied to non-transient non-community water systems as well as community water systems. This rulemaking also clarified that non-transient non-community water systems were not subject to MCLs that were promulgated before July 8, 1987.

Public Information and Consultation: SDWA emphasizes that consumers have a right to know what is in their drinking water, where it comes from, how it is treated, and how to help protect it. US EPA distributes public information materials (through its Safe Drinking Water Hotline, Safewater web site, and Water Resource Center) and holds public meetings, working with states, tribes, water systems, and environmental and civic groups, to encourage public involvement.


See also: What the Oil Companies Knew and When They Knew It by the Environmental Working Group.

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