The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 31, 2000


A Problem of Grave Proportions

Four years ago when the town learned that a number of private wells had been contaminated by methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), most us had never heard of the substance which had been added to unleaded gasoline to reduce smog. While the finding seemed tragic for town center residents, the problem seemed somewhat contained. I think some of us took comfort in believing that we were safe if we didn't live near the gas station and, if the Daisy station were cleaned up, the problem would go away. However, it is now clear that Carlisle's experience was just the tip of the iceberg and MTBE is a nationwide problem of epidemic proportions.

MTBE has contaminated not only small private wells but also large water supplies. Santa Monica, California, a city with a population of 90,000, was forced to shut down seven of its 11 wells because they were contaminated with MTBE; the city now buys water diverted from the Colorado River at a cost of $3 million per year. On the East coast, in New Jersey, MTBE has been detected in 65 public drinking water supplies and in Long Island, New York, it has been found in small quantities in 100 public water supplies. The substance seems to be everywhere; the presence of MTBE has been detected in varying levels in groundwater in 49 states.

It seems clear that not only those water sources close to a gas station are in jeopardy. Because of its characteristics, MTBE travels further and faster than other gasoline components, putting vast water sources at risk. According to a March 21 Boston Globe article, water supplies in Methuen and Lawrence were contaminated by a gas spill which occurred ten miles away. Carlisle's town center gas station has closed, but there are many in surrounding towns and no maps to indicate which way the underground water travels.

One should not assume either, that gas station owners have been grossly negligent. Unfortunately, leaks at gas stations are all too common and it takes only a small amount of MTBE to do a great deal of damage. According to the CBS 60 Minutes report, one cup of MTBE can make five million gallons of water undrinkable. There are few studies to show the extent of leaks at gas stations, but one internal study conducted by Chevron found that MTBE had contaminated the groundwater at 80 percent of the 400 sites which the company tested.

What had appeared to be a problem with unique and significant impact in Carlisle has become what some have termed the biggest environmental crisis of the next decade. Unfortunately, the characteristics of this mandated additive were known back in the '80s but remained largely ignored and hidden from the public. Nine months ago, a blue-ribbon panel recommended that Congress modify the Clean Air Act so companies could begin to phase out the use of MTBE. However, legislators failed to act and it was not until a couple of weeks ago that the Clinton administration invoked a rarely used authority under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act to ban MTBE, a possible carcinogen, by 2003. That initiative should be applauded for addressing a widespread environmental issue which touches so closely the center of Carlisle.

Unfinished Business

Spring has finally arrived, and with it the usual string of chores: cleaning up winter's debris from the yard, reinstalling screens on the windows, finishing off the basement. Oops, sorry. That last chore is not actually associated with spring; it's associated with the advent of the teenage years, or more accurately, teenagers who need their own space to. . . to . . . well, to do whatever it is teenagers do these days. And please, don't anybody tell me. I don't want to know. I'm still getting used to the idea that they go to PG-13 movies without me.

But finishing the basement is really a practical thing to do. It makes a naturally cool space for those hot, sticky days of summer, increases the value of your house, and creates a good reason to get rid of a few of the seven bicycles (six of them broken) no one could bear to part with until now. The only legitimate question is whether to make it a do-it-yourself project or call the builder. Naw, just kidding. Finishing a basement is about as easy a home building project as one could undertake, coming right after performing a root canal on a pit bull terrierunsedated. Call the builder.

To make the whole experience a pleasant one, it's best to establish a budget both you and your spouse are comfortable with right from the get-go, then find a builder who can keep a straight face when you show it to him. One trick to keeping the builder's estimate within hailing distance of this budget is to start with a design as basic and unadorned as possible. This will leave room for the inevitable additions and embellishments that the builder will assure you will give the room more of a "fun" look. To keep these extras within reason, it is important to be firm during the friendly negotiations that will ensue among you, your spouse and the builder. Take heat for example. (Of course you'll want heat in the basement. That way it's usable in the winter, even though the primary idea was to get a cool spot for the summer.) The barebones solution is electric baseboard heaters. However, your builder may offer several other options. Here's the best way to handle this discussion for a satisfactory outcome.

You: We should go with electric baseboard heat. It's simple, practical, unobtrusive and won't cost a bundle. Don't you agree, dear?

Spouse: I want a gas fireplace.

Builder: Ka-ching!

Spouse: One of those kinds with the realistic flames and a remote control.

Builder: Ka-ching!!

Spouse: And let's finish off around it with ceramic tiles and a solid cherry mantel.

Builder: Ka-ching!!

You: Excuse me. I have to go apply for a night job at Stop & Shop.

Spouse: OK, you win. We'll do the mantel in oak.

See how simple that was? If you approach every issue (floors, wall treatments, lighting, built-in bookcase, entertainment center, faux windows) using this strategy, you'll definitely be able to bring in the project for less than the original cost of your whole house. If not, well, just remember, a finished basement is a fun room. Too bad your teenagers won't allow you down there to enjoy it.

2000 The Carlisle Mosquito