MTBE Cleanup Cost $29 Billion, Study Says


Cleaning a gasoline additive from the nation's soil and water supplies will cost at least $29 billion, far more than the federal government is considering authorizing, according to a new study by a Huntington Beach environmental consulting firm.

"There's no question--we've grossly underestimated the cleanup costs," said Matt Hagemann, a researcher with Komex H2O Science and a former senior science policy advisor with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Both policymakers and the [oil] industry need to understand the magnitude of the problem that these numbers represent."

Komex did the cleanup-cost assessment for several cities, including Santa Monica, that are suing oil companies because their drinking water supply has been contaminated by MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether.

The chemical was first added to gasoline more than two decades ago to reduce air pollution, and its use became widespread in the early 1990s. It initially appeared to be a silver bullet--a cheap additive that makes gas burn cleaner without harmful side effects.

However, further study found that MTBE is a suspected carcinogen that even in small amounts can make drinking water smell like turpentine. It travels quickly through soil and can be extremely costly to clean because of its affinity for water. Last month, a U.S. Senate committee authorized spending $400 million this year to clean MTBE contamination.

Using state, federal and university research data, Komex estimates that at least 500 public drinking-water wells and 45,000 private wells across the country are contaminated with enough MTBE--five parts per billion--to affect the taste and odor of the water. Cleaning up the wells would cost $2.1 billion, the study says.

Much MTBE contamination, including in Orange County, spilled from leaking underground tanks at gas stations. The study says there are more than 140,000 leaking tanks with significant releases, and it would cost $27 billion to clean them up.

Few outside people have thoroughly reviewed the Komex study. Matt Small, a hydrologist with the regional EPA office in San Francisco, said Komex's analysis appears reasonable. He also noted that the agency is considering a ban on MTBE, which is still widely added to gasoline. In California, MTBE must be phased out by 2003.

Jeff Wilson, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Assn. in Glendale, said his agency would have to review the study before commenting on the cost figure.

However, he noted that "the industry is bound by state, federal and local laws to clean up any constituent in gasoline or their products when they are spilled. . . . When the facts and the cleanup costs are in dispute, that's why they have the court system to remedy it."

In some parts of California, including Santa Monica, South Lake Tahoe and Morro Bay, the chemical has tainted the water supply and increased reliance on water imported from Northern California and the Colorado River.

More than $75 million has been spent on MTBE litigation and cleanup in Santa Monica, said Steve Linder, EPA co-project manager of the cleanup there.

MTBE has reached Orange County's gigantic underground aquifer serving the northern and central parts of the county, but it has not traveled far enough to affect drinking water. Still, county prosecutors have sued several oil companies, seeking millions of dollars in civil penalties from Atlantic Richfield Co., BP Amoco Corp., Thrifty Oil Co., Shell Oil Co., ARCO Chemical Co. and Lyondell Chemical Co., alleging that they are responsible for contaminating ground water beneath 330 gas stations across the county. No trial dates have been set, said Michelle Lyman, a deputy district attorney.

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