California Fights to Stop MTBE Contamination

Californias congressmen plan to push for legislation this year to ban the use of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) in state gasoline.

Californias congressmen plan to push for legislation this year to ban the use of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) in state gasoline.

Refiners have used the additive to make a reformulated gasoline that meets federal air quality rules, but tanks and pipelines have leaked MTBE into California water supplies.

MTBE is the principal oxygenate used in reformulated gasoline to prevent smog. The reformulated gasoline program, which accounts for approximately 30 percent of gasoline use across the nation, covers 32 areas in 18 states.

Concerns about MTBE in drinking water prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to issue an advisory to drinking water suppliers nationwide.

In general, EPA advised water suppliers to ensure that MTBE levels do not exceed 20 to 40 micrograms per liter (20 to 40 parts per billion), a level most likely to avert the taste and odor of MTBE.

EPA said, "Recent air quality data indicate that the benefits of reducing air emissions from the use of MTBE in gasoline far exceed any known risks from the substance. EPA, other federal agencies, and private entities will continue further research on MTBE and its public health and environmental effects."

The EPA advisory noted, "The concentrations in the range of 20 to 40 ppb are about 20,000 to 100,000, or more, times lower than the range of exposure levels in which cancer and non-cancer effects were observed in rodent tests."

The Oxygenated Fuels Association said a 40 ppb level equates to two or three tablespoons of MTBE in 150,000 gallons of water, about the capacity of six in-ground backyard swimming pools.

It noted the EPA advisory does not set a specific, health-based exposure recommendation for human consumption, but is a sensory range only.

"We are pleased that EPA believes that there would not be health concerns in the 20 to 40 ppb range established by this aesthetic recommendation," an association spokesman said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) held an Environment and Public Works Committee field hearing in Sacramento on the issue.

At the hearing, the Association of California Water Agencies testified use of MTBE in the state should banned. The state legislature has urged more studies on the issue, but may consider a ban later.

Boxer said alternatives to a ban would be increased monitoring for MTBE in wells and groundwater, tighter controls on gasoline storage, and initiatives to help local communities with contaminated water supplies.

She said MTBE leaks have affected at least 13 California lakes, including Lake Tahoe. She said MTBE has contaminated more than half of the water supply of the city of Santa Monica.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she would file a bill to remove the federal requirement that California gasoline contain oxygenates such as MTBE.

She said, "This is a particularly serious problem in California, where MTBE leaks are occurring with more frequency." Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) has filed a similar bill in the House.

Other agencies

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has warned Southern Californias Imperial Valley to reduce its water usage or face federal action.

Other agencies

He told the Colorado River Water Users Association, "I believe the time has come for me as the River Master (of the Colorado River) to play a more active role."

Other agencies

California gets 70 percent of its water from the Colorado River, and Babbitt has been urging the state to increase conservation and reduce reliance on the river. Babbitt wants California, which has been using more than 5.2 million acre feet per year from the river, to live within its 4.4 million acre foot allocation.

Other agencies

He specifically criticized the largest user of Colorado River water, the Imperial Irrigation District, for failing to limit water use. He pledged to block the districts sale of up to 300,000 acre feet of water annually to San Diego, and said he would impose usage limits if the Imperial district and two smaller agricultural water districts in the valley dont restrain use themselves.

Other agencies

Babbitt also announced Interior would propose a rule to allow the interstate transfer of Colorado River water between Arizona, Nevada, and California. It would allow states in the federally managed Lower Basin to store water offstream and earn redeemable storage credits for that water.

Other agencies

The rule would let Nevada store its unused allocation of about 70,000 acre feet per year in Arizona aquifers for later use, rather than watching it flow downstream.

Other agencies

The Agriculture Departments Rural Utilities Service plans to revamp its environmental regulations, policies, and procedures for water and wastewater projects.

Other agencies

It would apply a single set of environmental regulations and criteria to the financial assistance programs for rural electricity, telecommunications, and water and waste projects, rather than the separate rules now in effect.

Other agencies

The agency proposes to substitute the two-tiered classification for environmental assessments (EAs) with a "more traditional" classification plan. It said EAs would only be required for higher volume water or wastewater projects.

Benchmarking

The Water Environment Research Foundation has issued a study of benchmarking in the wastewater industry.

Benchmarking

It defined benchmarking as "the systematic process of searching for best practices, innovative ideas, and highly effective operating procedures that lead to superior performance" and then adopting those for use in ones own organization.

Benchmarking

WERF surveyed 105 utilities with an average treatment flow of 80 million gallons per day and average processing of 55 dry tons per day of biosolids.

Benchmarking

It said the most efficient utilities had many common practices. They shared workforces with other utilities or other parties of their organizations. They demonstrated proactive influencing of regulatory outcomes based on good science (and thus cost avoidance).

Benchmarking

WERF said the utilities used efficient communications technology and work order generation. They also used asset condition, flow monitoring, and process modeling to optimize the sizing of assets. The top utilities managed competition to challenge the workforce, and outsourced when it reduced costs. And they used extensive training and cross training.

Benchmarking

The study said, "The wastewater industry in the U.S. is experiencing significant changes in its operating and management environments.

Benchmarking

"Managers are now dealing with reduced grant financing support, increased water quality regulation resulting in increased capital needs, higher customer expectations, and elected officials demands to make their operations more efficient and competitive."

Benchmarking

It said wastewater utilities are capital-intensive operations, but federal and state grants have been phased out and many utilities are now completely self-financing.

Benchmarking

"Even though utilities are self-sustaining operations, rate increases (even if needed for regulatory compliance) are viewed as being equivalent to tax increases. Customer expectations fueled by improvements in private sector service delivery have increased dramatically.

Benchmarking

"The feeling that wastewater utilities are not as efficient as they might be is also buttressed by increased interest in the advantages of privatization around the world and in the U.S.

Benchmarking

"There is no question that the industry must undergo extensive modifications to meet these challenges successfully and meet public expectations as it enters the 21st Century."

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