Monday, December 13, 2004


Leak to fuel additive ban?; Substance blamed for contaminating Dover wells

Leak to fuel additive ban?; Substance blamed for contaminating Dover wellsBy Tom Eldred, Delaware State News
DOVER - Confirmation of private wells in south Dover being contaminated with MTBE has again raised the question of whether the controversial gasoline additive should be banned in Delaware.
The Delaware State News reported Wednesday that at least 21 private wells southeast of U.S. 13 in Dover are polluted with MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) because of a gasoline leak at a nearby service station.
Meanwhile, a second station in the same neighborhood has been identified as the possible source of another leak.
Officials from the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control fear both emissions could be forming individual "plumes'' of pollution flowing underground toward Moores Lake.
According to the Delaware Division of Public Health, there are about 141,000 private well owners in Delaware, or 18 percent of residents.
MTBE is a chemical that is added to gasoline to increase octane and help reduce harmful emissions from vehicle exhausts. Use began in the 1970s to replace lead in gasoline and increased in the 1990s as a method to meet oxygenate mandates in the federal Clean Air Act.
Because MTBE dissolves quickly in water and takes longer to break down than other chemicals, it can easily invade wells and other sources of drinking water.
When concentrations reach higher-than-accepted levels, MTBE can cause water to have a bitter taste like turpentine. Tests have shown that extremely high levels cause cancer in rodents.
Rep. Richard C. Cathcart, R-Middletown, has been trying for years to prohibit the use of MTBE in Delaware because of repeated gasoline spills and leaks from fuel storage tanks.
He's been the prime sponsor of House Bill 249, which seeks to ban MTBE from all gasoline sold or distributed in Delaware.
The measure passed the state House of Representatives in 2002 and 2004 but failed to make it to the full Senate for a vote.
"We definitely plan to re-introduce this legislation during the next session,'' Rep. Cathcart said Wednesday.
"Three or four years ago Artesian Water Co. had a problem when one of their wells became contaminated from a Superfund site. I started looking into it. MTBE moves very quickly. It's a very volatile chemical and possible carcinogen. It's also very expensive and difficult to remove from the aquifer.''
Rep. Cathcart said he was surprised HB 249 bogged down in the Senate.
"I have no clue why it stalled,'' he said. "I don't know of any lobbying interest that's opposing it. We're certainly not the first state to ban it.''
At least 18 states have already passed legislation prohibiting the use of MTBE.
DNREC hydrologist Dr. Patricia Ellis has been advocating against the use of MTBE for years. She served on a panel created by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 1998 to review the risks of MTBE and other additives.
The panel recommended that the EPA greatly reduce or eliminate MTBE requirements through federal legislation.
Ms. Ellis said she wants state lawmakers take a stand on the issue.
"Every year I get my hopes up and then they're dashed,'' she said. "If we did get it banned in Delaware, we'd probably go to ethanol as an alternative. There are some problems with ethanol but it's a lot better that MTBE.''
Ms. Ellis said a stumbling block with ethanol could be its transport because most of it is produced in the Midwest and must be mixed with gasoline at bulk plants, just prior to delivery to retail outlets.
"I can tell you that most of the major petroleum companies would like to get out of using MTBE,'' she said. "It's costing them a fortune.''
Rep. Cathcart agreed.
"The interesting thing about this is that the petroleum industry recognizes the dangers of this,'' he said. "The only reason we're adding these fuel additives right now is because the federal government requires it.''
Gary Patterson, executive director of the Delaware Petroleum Council, said his organization fully supports an MTBE ban in the First State.
"I've been supportive of (Rep. Cathcart's) bill and I worked with him and his committee on it,'' Mr. Patterson said.
"The Petroleum Council supports this bill. I also think when he brings it back (to the General Assembly) it will include other ether-like substances that should be banned also.''
Mr. Patterson said the problems goes back to Congress and the 1990 Clean Air Act that required certain regions of the country - including Delaware - to start using lower-polluting fuels to meet national air-quality standards.
"Our hope is that Congress passes some sort of legislation to address this,'' he said. "EPA has been reluctant to give Delaware a waiver. We believe something needs to be done about it.''
He said the petroleum industry had little choice but to start using additives like MTBE in order to fulfill the requirements of the Clean Air Act.
"The industry was forced to start using it in the first place,'' he said. "We will be very glad to see it leave.''
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Senior writer Tom Eldred can be reached at 741-8212 or

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