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Posted on  

May 28, 2002


MTBE Can Double the Cost of Cleaning Up a Gasoline Spill

WASHINGTON, DC - In testimony before a U.S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee this week, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) stated that MTBE contamination across the country may be understated because some tank releases go undetected and only a handful of states specifically look for MTBE when a gasoline spill is detected.

“The extent of MTBE contamination may be understated because some tank releases go undetected and because only 19 states said that they are taking any extra steps to make sure that MTBE in not migrating further from a tank site than other contaminants when a release has been detected,” stated John Stephenson, director of GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment division. “MTBE is less likely to cling to soil than other gasoline components and dissolves more easily in water, allowing it to travel faster, farther, and sometimes deeper.”

Underground Tanks Still Leaking

Stephenson noted that underground storage tanks continue to leak hazardous substances, such as MTBE and benzene. In fact, some states reported that new tanks with state-of-the-art leak detection and prevention equipment continue to leak.

Underground tanks are not the only source of MTBE contamination. “This widespread [MTBE] contamination occurs, even though currently only certain communities…use gasoline with MTBE as a fuel additive,” added Stephenson. “Contamination continues because, among other things, MTBE has been used in the past as an octane enhancer and is currently transported through the same fuel pipes and trucks that deliver gasoline across the country.”

MTBE Poses Health Risks

“These leaks, in turn, contaminate soil and groundwater, posing health risks to those who live nearby or drink the water,” Stephenson continued. “Such health risks can range from nausea to kidney or liver damage or even cancer. As a result, some communities have closed their drinking water wells.”

Stephenson used a recent news report to illustrate this point. “A school in Roselawn, Indiana, discovered that the children had been using and drinking water with nearly 10 times the EPA-recommended safe level of MTBE,” he testified. “I understand that an investigation is trying to determine whether the MTBE came from a nearby tank and whether it is a factor contributing to the children’s nosebleeds and other reported health problems.”

MTBE Can Double Cleanup Costs

Stephenson also noted, “According a December 2000 report on a survey of state tank program managers sponsored by the EPA, finding MTBE at a tank site does not typically affect the cleanup method but can increase the time and cost of cleanup because MTBE travels faster and farther than other gasoline contaminants,” added. “Several states reported that their cleanup costs doubled as a result of addressing MTBE.”

The complete GAO report can be found at: www.gao.gov/new.items/d02753t.pdf.


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