AWWA leader comments on industrial water pollution and MTBE

American Water Works Association (AWWA) Executive Director Jack W. Hoffbuhr recently spoke out against the "safe harbor" provision in the current energy bill, which has to do with MTBE pollution in water supplies.

Sept. 29, 2003 -- American Water Works Association (AWWA) Executive Director Jack W. Hoffbuhr has released some comments on industrial water pollution. His comments follow.

If an industry makes a mess on public land, it's expected to clean up after itself. Common sense suggests that if an industry pollutes the public water supply, it ought to clean up that mess, too.

But politics isn't always about common sense. Sometimes powerful interests receive special treatment at the expense of ordinary citizens. That's what's happening in Washington right now, as lawmakers working a wide-ranging energy bill consider granting gasoline manufacturers liability immunity - so called "safe harbor" - in cases of MTBE water contamination.

Gasoline makers relish this blank-check protection, because it means they're not accountable for a mess that will cost some $29 billion to clean up. They would rather pass the buck to local water utilities, and to you, the water consumer.

MTBE, methyl tertiary butyl ether, is a chemical commonly used in gasoline for more than two decades. But communities throughout the country are repeatedly discovering that MTBE also seeps into drinking water, fouls it, and renders it undrinkable. As gasoline escapes through leaky storage tanks, spills during traffic accidents and drips from gas-station nozzles, MTBE can quietly and seriously contaminate our most precious resource.

A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey found MTBE contamination in 55 percent of the metropolitan water systems that were tested. Even small amounts of MTBE can make drinking water smell and taste like turpentine. Health concerns related to MTBE range from headaches and dizziness to burning of the nose and throat, disorientation and nausea. Most alarmingly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified MTBE as a possible human carcinogen.

In South Tahoe, Calif., severe MTBE contamination led to a lawsuit filed by the local public utility against several MTBE producers, seeking contamination clean-up costs. In that case, the jury found that MTBE was a defective product, resulting in a settlement in which manufacturers agreed to pay more than $50 million in clean-up costs. Factored into the jury's decision were documents demonstrating that gasoline manufacturers have known for years that MTBE spreads in the environment farther and faster than other constituents of gasoline and is enormously expensive to clean up.

The good news is that there is a movement afoot to eliminate the use of MTBE in gasoline supplies. The chemical is now banned in 17 states. Unfortunately, the damage has already been done in many regions, and somebody has to address that damage.

State and federal funding for MTBE cleanup is already limited at best. If enacted, the safe harbor provision would prevent local utilities from seeking legal recourse they may need. It is impossible to measure the harm this arbitrary shield will cause local governments already struggling under tight budgets and limited resources.

So who should pay: the industry that created MTBE pollution, or the local communities that suffer from it? Let's hope our Congressional lawmakers choose common sense over special interests. We could all drink to that.

Source: AWWA. Established in 1881, AWWA is the oldest and largest nonprofit scientific and educational organization dedicated to safe drinking water in North America. AWWA has over 56,000 members worldwide and its more than 4,600 utility members serve 80 percent of America's population. For more information, go to

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