Drinking water associations take on MTBE and ethanol legislation

Two national drinking water associations announced their opposition to a couple of hotly contested provisions in House and Senate energy legislation at a press conference Monday.

May 12th, 2003

Washington, D.C., May 12, 2003 -- Two national drinking water associations announced their opposition to a couple of hotly contested provisions in House and Senate energy legislation at a press conference Monday.

The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies and the American Water Works Association, which together represent water systems serving approximately 180 million Americans, oppose provisions in legislation that would provide product liability immunity to producers of the fuel additives MTBE and ethanol.

H.R. 6, which passed the House on April 11, includes product liability immunity provisions for both MTBE and ethanol. S. 791 includes only the ethanol provision. It passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on May 9 and is expected to be offered as an amendment to the Senate energy bill, S. 14, this week.

It is well known that MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), a possible human carcinogen according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, renders water undrinkable due to its foul taste and odor of paint thinner. Drinking water systems and their customers potentially face billions of dollars in costs to cleanup contaminated supplies and secure new sources of water to replace shutdown wells.

Moreover, the MTBE industry knew of the additive's environmental dangers long before it was put in use to meet the oxygenate requirement, commented the American Water Works Association (AWWA) in a release. Documents uncovered in a lawsuit by the South Tahoe Public Utility District against eight oil companies demonstrate the MTBE industry's knowledge since the early 1980s that the product spread rapidly in groundwater and was difficult to clean up.

"If the MTBE liability immunity provisions in H.R. 6 are eventually enacted, producers will have little incentive to clean up contaminated water supplies or cover water systems' costs for cleanup and/or acquisition of new sources of water, such as new pipelines and wells," said Diane VanDe Hei, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA).

"If water systems are denied their day in court to prove this product is defective, the ultimate victims of immunity from liability will be the American people, who will lose their aquifers to contamination and their money to cleanups and new sources of water," said Tom Curtis, deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association (AWWA).

Liability immunity supporters say that MTBE use was mandated by the Clean Air Act, and thus the product deserves Congress's protection. But it turns out this is not true. Neither the Clean Air Act, nor EPA's reformulated gasoline regulations, require the use of MTBE in any way.

This week, the Senate is expected to take up the ethanol issue. Ethanol, which H.R. 6 and S. 791 propose to mandate, is not as innocuous as its supporters contend. Researchers recognize that groundwater plumes containing gasoline and ethanol biodegrade more slowly than a plume containing only gasoline.

In addition, there are several studies demonstrating that ethanol increases the size and migration of benzene plumes. Researchers say that many more groundwater wells will experience contamination from MTBE and benzene, a known carcinogen, if ethanol leaks into water supplies.

"Ethanol producers say that ethanol is safe," said VanDe Hei. "If this is true, why are they seeking liability immunity?"

"Clearly the jury is still out on whether ethanol is environmentally safe," said AWWA's Tom Curtis, "Questions surrounding ethanol should be answered before Congress gives big business a liability exemption and leaves ordinary Americans holding the bag. We don't want ethanol to become the next MTBE."

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