Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
Hearing on the Clean Air Act Reformulated Gasoline
Requirement and Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE)
September 16, 1998

Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman. I want to thank you for holding this hearing today to address the serious problems associated with methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) use.

Last year, you graciously allowed me to chair a field hearing in California on the threats posed by MTBE drinking water contamination. That hearing revealed that MTBE poses a very serious and pervasive threat to California's drinking water supplies.

Today's hearing will focus on another important aspect of the MTBE issue; specifically, whether we can achieve the air quality benefits associated with reformulated gasoline without adding MTBE to that gasoline.

Considering these two issues together is critical. If the air quality benefits associated with reformulated gasoline may be achieved without using MTBE, then how can we justify putting the public's drinking water at risk by continuing to use it?

While MTBE has been used in the blending of gasoline since the 1970s, its use increased dramatically following the passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. In regions of the country with poor air quality -- including Southern California and Sacramento -- those amendments required the use of reformulated gasoline. Under the Act, reformulated gasoline must contain 2% oxygen by weight.

Today, about 70% of the gasoline sold in California contains 2% oxygen by weight due to this federal Clean Air Act requirement. While other oxygenates like ethanol may be used to meet this 2% requirement, the ready availability of MTBE and its chemical properties has made it the oxygenate of choice among oil companies.

While the oxygenate of choice, MTBE is also classified as a possible human carcinogen. When MTBE enters groundwater, it moves through the water very fast and very far. Once there, MTBE resists degrading in the environment. We know very little about how long it takes to break down to the point that it becomes harmless.

There has been only very limited study on the public health impact of drinking water contaminated by MTBE. We do know, however, that even at very low levels, MTBE causes water to take on the taste and odor of turpentine -- rendering it undrinkable.

That is, it makes water smell and taste so bad that people won't drink it.

While MTBE drinking water contamination is emerging as a national issue, it is already a very serious problem in California. MTBE is leaking from California's underground storage tanks at an alarming rate. A June 1998 Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory study revealed that MTBE is leaking from over 10,000 underground storage tanks in the state.

The study also indicated that this is a conservative estimate.

MTBE contamination from such tanks has already forced the closure of drinking water supplies in several areas of California. Santa Monica, South Lake Tahoe, Glennville and Santa Clara have all closed drinking water wells due to MTBE contamination. MTBE has also been discovered in many reservoirs throughout the state.

To address the closure of drinking water supplies in California, and the threat of more closures in the future, I have urged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to follow a two part strategy.

First, I have asked EPA to phase out the use of MTBE. The Administrator of EPA has broad legal authority to protect drinking water supplies under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Given the pervasiveness and seriousness of MTBE contamination, I believe the exercise of this authority to phase out MTBE is justified.

Second, I have asked EPA to use its authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and Superfund (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act) to speed the cleanup of drinking water already contaminated with MTBE.

In Santa Monica, EPA has embarked on an effort to do just that. There, EPA has exercised this authority to identify the parties responsible for the contamination at the most severely impacted site. EPA is now in the process of crafting a settlement which would establish the actions those parties must take to cleanup the site.

I support Senator Feinstein's efforts to address the issue of MTBE use in California. S. 1576 would waive the Clean Air Act oxygenate requirement so long as a state could achieve equal or better emission reductions without using an oxygenate like MTBE.

Under the bill, oil companies would still be free to use MTBE -- unless it is ultimately phased out by the State of California. By lifting the oxygenate requirement, however, S. 1576 would make a state phase out possible. In that way, S. 1576 would be a very positive step forward.

In this hearing today, California's Air Resources Board (CARB) will testify California can meet emission standards without using oxygenates like MTBE. If California could meet these standards without using MTBE, then how can we justify putting our public water supply at risk by continuing to use it?

What grounds, then, are there for taking that risk?

I thank my colleague Senator Einstein for her work on this piece of the MTBE puzzle. I look forward to continuing to work with her, this Committee and the Administration to phase out the use of MTBE, and to speed the cleanup of MTBE contaminated drinking water in California and elsewhere in the nation.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.