STATEMENT BY SENATOR BARBARA BOXER
FULL COMMITTEE FIELD HEARING ON POSSIBLE WATER POLLUTION BY METHYL TERTIARY BUTYL ETHER (MTBE)
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 9, 1997
9:00 AM, STATE CAPITOL BUILDING, SACRAMENTO, CA

Good morning. Thank you all for being here today.

I want to thank my colleague Senator Chafee, Chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee for approving this field hearing and recognizing the importance of the issue before us today. I am sorry that his schedule, and the schedule constraints of other committee members did not permit them to be here, but I will be reporting back to them in detail on the issues raised here today.

With this Committee hearing we are initiating what I expect will be a very comprehensive federal review of the risks and benefits associated with the use of the chemical methyl tertiary butyl ether commonly referred to as MTBE.

MTBE is an oxygenate, which is added to gasoline to make it burn more cleanly and efficiently. The blending of oxygenates in gasoline is required by the 1990 Clean Air Act and is a key component in our nation's strategy to help meet federal air quality standards for carbon monoxide and ozone because it results in cleaner tail pipe emissions.

The potential risks of MTBE came to my attention in February 1996, when I met with Mayor Pam O'Connor of the City of Santa Monica. High levels of MTBE contamination had been discovered in City of Santa Monica drinking water wells. The suspected source of the contamination was nearby underground gasoline storage tanks and fuel pipelines. Santa Monica has now lost over 70% of its local drinking-water supply. The City needed help from EPA in tracking down the source of the contamination and coordinating cleanup of the contaminated wells.

I immediately contacted EPA Administrator Carol Browner asking that she: One: Work closely with Santa Monica to expedite site evaluation and cleanup; Two: Provide direction on the appropriate remediation and treatment technologies so that Santa Monica's problems can be corrected, and their drinking water protected. These technologies will then be applied nationwide as needed in order to protect the nation's water supplies; and Three: Consider establishing safe-drinking water standards for MTBE.

The City of Santa Monica is on the first panel today -- to give us an account of what they are going through and where cleanup efforts stand.

The EPA has made significant progress on my call for research and the setting of health standards: In September 1997, EPA announced a new research plan to further our knowledge of remediation and treatment technologies, and the potential health effects of exposure to MTBE.

Yesterday the EPA announced a revised Drinking Water Health and Consumer Acceptability Advisory for MTBE which recommends a range of 20 to 40 parts per billion -- down from the 1992 Advisory range of 20 to 200 parts per billion. An advisory is a non- enforceable recommended range of concentration levels of MTBE in drinking-water based on current health effects research and odor and taste thresholds.

In October 1997, EPA also announced it is considering setting a federal standard for MTBE in drinking-water. A standard is an enforceable limit for a pollutant.

Clearly, progress is being made, but we still need answers to basic questions many of which we will explore during this hearing -- questions like how pervasive is MTBE contamination of our nation's drinking water and groundwater today? If the major source of MTBE contamination is leaking underground gasoline storage tanks and fuel pipelines, how many of these are located near sources of drinking water? Are there immediate safety measures that we can take to prevent MTBE contamination at these sites? Will we be safe from significant levels of MTBE contamination if all tanks are replaced and closely monitored? -- or can MTBE corrode through new tanks? Once MTBE gets into the soil and water, why is it so slow to biodegrade into a harmless substance? How can we clean it up cost effectively given how quickly it leaks through the soil into groundwater?

In California, MTBE has been found in about 8 percent of drinking-water wells and groundwater tested so far -- from Orange County (at 38 parts per billion), to Los Angeles (13 parts per billion), to Sacramento. It has also been detected in over 13 lakes and reservoirs including Donner Lake (12 parts per billion), and Lake Tahoe (levels as high as 47 parts per billion).

The U.S. Geological Survey's MTBE test program has revealed the presence of MTBE in groundwater in Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.

Part of what we need to learn today is how serious the problem is. If the risks to our drinking-water are as serious as many believe, then we will need to consider taking several possible actions:

One: asking the Administrator of EPA to use her emergency authority under the Clean Air Act to curb or stop the use of MTBE in order to protect the public health and welfare; Two: amending federal laws to require nationwide monitoring of MTBE in air and water; Three: amending federal laws including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the Safe drinking Water Act to set controls on the amount of MTBE allowed in air and water; Four: looking at ways to offer federal help to communities that are facing contamination prevention and cleanup issues.

During the last year, California lawmakers have been debating MTBE intensely. This debate culminated in four bills being signed into law -- authored by Senator Hayden, Senator Mountjoy, and Assembly Members Kuehl and Cunneen. The bills appropriate ends for health effects research, require the State to develop drinking water standards for MTBE and make a recommendation as to whether MTBE should be listed as a carcinogen under Prop 65, and authorize projects to map leaking underground storage tanks and pipeline locations, and study cost-effective alternatives to MTBE. The Cunneen bill prohibits the delivery of gasoline to any underground storage tank that does not meet the December 22, 1998, federal and state "upgrade or replace" deadline.

I thank these legislators for their leadership and believe we need to consider the appropriateness of similar measures at the federal level.

Let me reassure you all here today that we are looking for answers to the challenges faced by California and other states due to MTBE use. This is the beginning of a close examination of how the federal government can play a constructive role in dealing with the MTBE problem. MTBE will be closely scrutinized by Senator Chafee, Chairman of this Committee, and other members in future hearings. We need to search for possible federal administrative and legislative solutions.

We must keep our air clean and protect our drinking water as well. That is the challenge we face with MTBE. With the knowledge we gain today, I trust we will have a road map to begin to meet that challenge.