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60 Minutes MTBE Story

MTBE Featured On CBS’s Popular “60 Minutes”

The January broadcast by the popular show “60 Minutes”, of a hard-hitting segment on the surprisingly sudden and widespread MTBE contamination of groundwater sources of drinking water triggered significant public concern over an issue that US water suppliers have been grappling over for several years.

Opening with the prediction that MTBE contamination of drinking water supplies could become “the biggest environmental disaster of the decade,” the segment highlighted the ongoing and expensive MTBE problems that have forced Santa Monica, Calif., to close seven of its eleven wells, as well as the efforts by the South Tahoe Public Utility District to get gas makers and distributors to clean up its MTBE-contaminated supply. It also focused on the failure of the federal government and fuel makers to adequately assess water-soluble MTBE’s environmental risks before implementing clean-air rules that have virtually demanded MTBE use as a fuel oxygenate in many markets for years.

In anticipation of the broadcast, AWWA issued a press release urging the Clinton administration to take immediate action to address “this real and growing threat to the quality of our drinking water resources and public health.”

Estimating that water suppliers are already faced with a national cost exceeding $1 billion to prevent, clean up, and treat MTBE-contaminated supplies, AWWA Executive Director Jack Hoffbuhr called on the administration “to demand a dramatic reduction or ban on MTBE use.” He added that water suppliers stand ready to work with federal, state, and local governments to protect drinking water from further contamination.” But, he also pointed out, “Certainly, we must continue to improve our air quality, but not at the expense of our nation’s drinking water.”

The Renewable Fuels Association, which represents the ethanol industry, took issue with the broadcast for “dismissing the potential for ethanol to replace MTBE.” RFA President Eric Vaughn said, “The problem is not the Clean Air Act. The problem is that oil companies chose the wrong oxygenate.”

In an advisory to utilities, Hoffbuhr reminded members that the best research being conducted on MTBE contamination and removal is being done by utilities themselves through AWWA and the AWWA Research Foundation. Citing studies and surveys underway, Hoffbuhr said, “This is a great example of utilities taking the lead on an important public health issue. …It clearly demonstrates that utilities work harder than anyone to keep drinking water supplies clean and safe.”

In related actions, a Washington, D.C., law firm that has been spearheading litigation to address MTBE contamination has filed a class-action lawsuit in the New York State Supreme Court that demands testing and cleanup of wells statewide. Lewis Saul and Associates filed a similar action in 1998 in Maine.

In New Hampshire, health and environmental officials have proposed toughening the state’s drinking water standard for MTBE, dropping it to 13 ug/L, from its current 70 ug/L. Citing extensive supporting risk review and analyses by both the state Department of Environmental Services and the Department of Health and Human Services, DES Commissioner Robert Varney said the stricter standard “is designed to strengthen our state’s safeguard for protecting public and private water supplies.” Varney said no public suppliers currently exceed it.

Illinois Gov. George Ryan, meanwhile, has asked Vice-President Al Gore to delay implementation by the US Environmental Protection Agency of the second phase of its reformulated gasoline (RFG) program, which the governor claims will disallow use of ethanol and encourage use of MTBE as a fuel oxygenate. Noting that Chicago is the nation’s top RFG market “and foundation of the domestic ethanol industry,” Ryan said it “is essential that ethanol be allowed to continue to compete in the summertime RFG market to improve air quality, protect water supplies, preserve agriculture from further economic losses, and prevent fuel price fluctuations for the consumer.”

(Reprinted from the February 2000 edition of “AWWAMainStream”)

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