The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 31, 2000


MTBE: town problem recognized on national level

If misery loves company, it has become clear that those residents of the Carlisle town center whose wells were found to contain varying levels of the gasoline additive MTBE are not alone. Communities from California to Maine have reported wells with significant related problems. At the extreme are towns like South Lake Tahoe in California, which has been forced to shut down a third of its water supply because of high levels of the chemical. In our immediate neighborhood, the Boston Globe reports that water supplies in Lawrence and Methuen recently became questionable because of a gasoline spill ten miles away.

As local residents are aware, MTBE is shorthand for methyl tertiary butyl ether, an additive that makes reformulated gasoline burn cleaner, in order to meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act passed by Congress in 1990. A short time after the bill's enactment, MTBE was blended into gasoline and became widely used, although it was found in some places, including Carlisle, before that.

Although gasoline spills have long been recognized as hazardous to the environment, MTBE has characteristics that make it far more threatening than other fuel ingredients. Because it contains an oxygenate, it is readily soluble in water and moves into and through groundwater at an alarmingly rapid rate. Perhaps worse, it doesn't break down and so requires long treatment at high cost to clean up. This is what the Daisy family learned to its sorrow when MTBE contamination appeared in a number of wells in Carlisle center near their gas station. The stress, both financial and psychological, caused by this discovery has been unrelenting.

On the national level, experts who appeared in a January broadcast of the CBS program "60 Minutes" expressed the fear that what has been experienced to date is only the tip of the iceberg. According to their figures, one gallon of pure MTBE is pumped with every ten gallons of reformulated gasoline, although just one cupful is sufficient to ruin a town's reservoir. Particularly disturbing is the statement made on the same program by Bernard Goldstein, a toxicologist with the Occupational Health Sciences Institute in New Jersey, that anyone who looked at the chemical properties of MTBE could have predicted that it would pollute. In fact, he said both the federal government and the oil companies have known since the late '80s that the chemical was getting into the groundwater, but have consistently looked the other way.

Reports of MTBE being detected in the groundwater in 49 states and having caused shutdown of one to 10,000 wells in 21 of those states has finally pushed the Environmental Protection Agency into action. Last week, the federal agency announced that the Clinton administration will ban MTBE as a possible carcinogen by the year 2003 and will encourage the use of clean-burning ethanol in its place. However, a word of caution may be in order: the safety of ethanol has yet to be proven, and 2003 is a long way off considering the rate at which the menace is spreading. In the meantime, all sources stress that the verdict on the extent of the health threat posed by MTBE has yet to be confirmed, although its turpentine smell is enough to render water undrinkable in any case.

The only entities considered capable of determining the dimensions of the problem of gas station leakage are the oil companies themselves, and to date their efforts have been negligible. Only the looming threat of lawsuits seems now to be stirring them to action. So until 2003, and probably well after, those of us who have seen our neighbors' lives disturbed can try not to think about the number of gas stations that do business within ten miles of our own wells.

2000 The Carlisle Mosquito