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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

MTBE Rides Again

Air Date: Week of

The gasoline additive MTBE has tainted water in 29 states. The energy bill before Congress would protect the companies that made MTBE from lawsuits. Water districts around the country fear they'll be left with the cost of cleaning up. Jeff Young reports from Washington.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman sitting in for Steve Curwood.

President Bush is again asking Congress to pass an energy bill and again, the bill's fate could rest on the gasoline additive MTBE. The chemical makes gasoline burn cleaner but it also contaminates ground water. The smell and possibly hazardous chemical is in drinking water in 29 states and it could cost tens of billions of dollars to get it out.

The question before Congress is—who's going to pay for it? The current version of the energy bill protects the oil companies that make and use MTBE from some of the clean-up lawsuits. And, water companies and local governments fear that could leave them and their customers footing the bill. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports.

YOUNG: In Park City, Kansas, public works director Jack Whitson has a problem delivering water to the town's 7,000 residents--and it's not a broken water main kind of problem. The water is contaminated with MTBE.

WHITSON: We believe that it's not safe, first of all, and also, the MTBE makes the water smell like gasoline and even taste like gasoline. So people do not want that kind of a product delivered to their house.

YOUNG: On New York's Long Island, Plainview Water District Director Paul Granger keeps track of two MTBE spills heading toward the aquifer that supplies his 35,000 customers.

GRANGER: We're dealing with two plumes that are god-awfully close to our facility. It's of paramount concern because it's not a matter of if--it's when this contamination will come into our supply well.

YOUNG: And, in Indiana—a state that doesn't even use MTBE gas—Purdue University chemistry Professor Ray Barreto says traces of MTBE from gas delivered elsewhere was left behind in tanks and trucks later used in Indiana and that was enough to foul water in towns like Mishawaka.

BARRETO: I couldn't believe it. I like to say that MTBE is a slow motion disaster because it just keeps happening and it happens slowly and quietly and it doesn't go away.

YOUNG: These towns in Indiana, New York and Kansas are among the more than 1,800 water systems around the country tainted by MTBE. They have one other thing in common--all three towns are represented by Congressmen who want to protect the companies that make MTBE from lawsuits the towns are filing. National Petrochemical and Refineries Association President Bob Slaughter argues the companies deserve that protection because Congress instructed them to use additives to make gas burn cleaner and improve air quality.

SLAUGHTER: Having put billions of dollars into this program to comply with Congress, we think it's unfair now to be the subject of lawsuits simply because we made the gasoline that Congress required us to do.

YOUNG: That argument makes sense to Congressman Todd Tiahrt of Kansas whose district includes Park City. Tiahrt joined fellow Republicans at a Washington Exxon station a few blocks from the Capitol to explain why companies like Exxon-Mobil aren't to blame for MTBE.

TIAHRT: It was a policy put in place by past Congresses so can we blame them? It was the only technology that was available in that part of the country.

YOUNG: Campaign finance records show Tiahrt took a little more than a quarter million dollars from the oil and gas industry over his past four elections. And back in Park City, that leaves Jack Whitson worrying that the protection for the companies will leave his city and its ratepayers in the lurch.

WHITSON: Well, I would hope Mr. Tiahrt would look at his constituents and what's good for them more so than what's good for the bottom line of an oil company.

YOUNG: That's an example of how contentious an issue the MTBE liability is. And it leaves some wondering why this item keeps showing up in the House versions of the energy bill. Ken Cook, whose Washington-based Environmental Working Group is fighting the provision, says he knows why.

COOK: The only real explanation is that there's one member of Congress, in particular, who has this as his very top priority because companies in his district, and near his district, stand to lose billions of dollars if he doesn't get this provision into law. And that's Tom DeLay.

YOUNG: Republican Congressman Tom DeLay and a spokesperson declined to comment for this story. The largest MTBE makers are based in DeLay's state of Texas and several are among his top campaign contributors. As House Majority Leader, Delay had the power to write in MTBE liability protection. But DeLay's name is a bit of a liability itself these days. He was reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee and now faces charges that lobbyists paid for his travel. No wonder Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi seize every opportunity to link DeLay with MTBE.

PELOSI: The MTBE producers and the big oil companies want to be protected from liability from contaminating our drinking water supplies and, not surprisingly, Tom DeLay and House Republicans are happy to oblige.

YOUNG: An amendment to strip MTBE protection failed in the House by six votes. Now, the energy bill moves to the Senate, where New York Democrat Charles Schumer fought a similar measure two years ago.

SCHUMER: The MTBE provision brought down the energy bill last time. It's likely to do it again. But these folks don't quit. They don't learn.

YOUNG: Schumer pledges to lead another bipartisan charge against the MTBE protection. It's unclear if he has enough votes this time around to pull it off. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young in Washington.

GELLERMAN: Well, while the energy bill is bogged down in controversies over MTBE, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and subsidies to oil producers, there is one item in the bill getting broad political support—the expansion of daylight saving time. There's a bipartisan effort to extend daylight saving from March to November; that's two months more than what we get now in order to save on energy. It's a far cry from the rancorous Congressional history that saving daylight has had. From Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan, changing the clock has pitted religious fundamentalists and farmers against retailers and pork barrel congressmen.



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