Clean-air MTBE may be water contamination source

Feb 18, 1997 01:00 AM

Feb. 7, 1997 The city of Santa Monica, California has sued Mobil Corp. for contaminating its drinking water wells with MTBE, renewing concern over use of the controversial gasoline additive. Jack Nicholl, a city spokesman, said Santa Monica officials were demanding at least $ 400,000 from Mobil in the suit filed late last month in California Superior Court. The city said it will add $ 400,000 for each additional year until the suit is settled. Nicholl said the money will cover costs to provide alternative sources of drinking water since the contamination was discovered in August 1996. The suit charges the MTBE came from a nearby Mobil service station. A Mobil official said the company has neither denied nor confirmed any leak from its gasoline station and is investigating the MTBE contamination with state and federal regulators. "We have not yet identified how the MTBE got from our site to the wells. All of our tanks and lines tested tight but we are doing everything we can to find the source, whether it is Mobil or others," said Mobil.
"The company's top priority is to ensure that Santa Monica has a reliable and continuous source of clean drinking water," Keith added. The lawsuit charges Mobil with "the reckless pollution and destruction of the city's Arcadia drinking water field with MTBE," a gasoline additive required under the Clean Air Act of 1990. Mobil says it is negotiating in good faith.
MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, is one of several so-called oxygenates that help make gasoline burn cleaner and reduce emissions.
The contamination has raised some concern in Santa Monica whether the chemical should be used at all in gasoline. The US Environmental Protection Agency has tentatively classified the chemical as a possible carcinogen, and recently MTBE has turned up in urban stormwater samples in 16 US cities. According to researchers, MTBE has an affinity for water, and once in water, it is more resistant to decay than other gasoline components like benzene. They note MTBE therefore often provides the first clues of underground leakage. Oil industry and environmentalists, however, have agreed MTBE has helped improve the air quality. But MTBE has also been a lightning rod of public complaints in recent years, with some motorists saying MTBE was causing them to suffer from headaches, nausea and other symptoms. "MTBE constitutes 15 % by volume of the gasoline in California and it is showing up in a lot different places in California and other states," said Nicholl. "MTBE has never been adequately tested and when something like this occurs it raises a lot of questions about the use of MTBE," Nicholl added.

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