Statement of Senator Dianne Feinstein
before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
Hearing on MTBE and Drinking Water Contamination
September 16, 1998

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss a serious problem affecting millions of people in California -- the contamination of drinking water by the gasoline additive, MTBE.

I especially want to thank the chairman, Senator John Chafee, for his interest in this problem, for holding this hearing and I thank the other members of the committee for their interest as well.

The Legislation, S. 1576

I am here to ask for your support for S. 1576, the bill I introduced on January 28, with Congressman Bilbray. H. R. 630 is sponsored by 49 out of the 52 members of the California delegation.

Our bills, in essence, seek a waiver of the federal 2 percent oxygenate requirement. The bills would provide that if a state's reformulated gasoline rules achieve equal or greater emissions reductions than federal regulations, a state's rules will take precedence. The bill would apply only to state which have received waivers under Section 209(b)(1) of the Clean Air Act. California is the only state currently eligible for this waiver, a waiver allowing California to set its own fuel standards. The other 49 states do not set their own fuel specifications.

The current federal Clean Air Act requires that reformulated gasoline contain a minimum average oxygen content of 2 percent by weight. Our bill would give gasoline manufacturers the flexibility to reduce or even eliminate the use of MTBE as long as equivalent or greater emissions reductions are achieved.

MTBE Is Not Necessary

In 1991, a year after the 1990 amendments to the federal Clean Air Act that imposed the current oxygenate requirements, California's Air Resources Board established its own rules, effective in 1996, for reformulated gasoline because the ARB determined that federal rules would not provide sufficient clean air benefits for the state to meet federal ozone standards. California's clean-burning gasoline provides about twice the air quality benefits of federal reformulated gasoline, according to the state's air board.

According to John Dunlap, Chairman of the California Air Resources Board, who will testify today, "Federal and state law should set content neutral performance standards, not prescriptive content volumes for refiners to meet." Thus, in 1994, the ARB approved use of a predictive model, which is a performance-based program that allows refiners to use innovative fuel formulations to meet clean air requirements. The predictive model requires gasoline to meet California's state standards, which provide twice the clean air benefits required by the federal government. With this model, refiners can make cleaner burning gasoline with one percent oxygen or even no oxygen at all."

As Mr. Dunlap told the House in a April 22 hearing there, "Incredibly, the federal oxygen rule prevents those refiners from selling the Northern California gasoline with reduced or no oxygenates in Southern California, even though the Northern California gasoline provides twice the clean air benefits required by the federal government."

Mr. Dunlap has told me that California's reformulated gasoline requirements have reduced toxic air pollutants by 30 percent and ozone precursors (hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides) by 17 percent. Ozone has been reduced by 10 percent in Northern California and 18 percent in Los Angeles. Benzene levels dropped by more than 50 percent. Our program has had the effect of removing 3.5 million cars out of our 24 million from the roads.

Gasoline Companies Can Make Clean Gas Without MTBE

Chevron Products Company wrote me on September 11, 1998, "We believe it is possible to replace gasoline, which currently contains MTBE with a combination of ethanol-blended gasoline and non-oxygenated gasolines, while maintaining the clean air benefits that the California Cleaner Burning Gasoline program has provided."

I asked Chevron, "Can California gasoline be made without MTBE but preserve emissions benefits?" Chevron responded as follows:

Yes. California allows the sale of a wide variety of gasoline formulations without oxygenates as long as they produce the same emissions reductions as a carefully designed base gasoline. As discussed above, this has been done at Chevron's Richmond refinery. Formulations that do not show equivalent or better emissions performance are not allowed. This is a pure performance standards -- oxygen is not required, per se. Were there no federal oxygen requirement, much, but not all, of a refiner's CBG could be made without MTBE by using ethanol or no oxygenate at all . However, not all MTBE can be eliminated year round without some increased flexibility in California's regulations. This can be accomplished without jeopardizing the emissions benefits that California Cleaner-Burning Gasoline (CBG) was designed to deliver. The California Air Resources Board has begun the process of making the needed changes.

The attached report from the Auto/Oil Air Quality Improvement Program shows actual emissions from a fleet of test vehicles run on an oxygenated vs. a non-oxygenated California gasoline. The report concluded that emission differences between reformulated California gasoline with MTBE, and a similar reformulated California gasoline without MTBE were generally not statistically significant. The result was true in both 1989 model year fleets as well as later model years with more advanced emission control technologies. The only statistically significant difference noted was a 13% decrease in formaldehyde emissions from the advanced fleet with the MTBE-free fuel."

I am inserting the letter and materials from Chevron for the record.

In addition, Tosco is now using ethanol-blended gasoline and when Tosco began this past April, they say a 20 percent volume increase in sales at gas stations.

The Problem: Drinking Water Contamination

Contamination of California's drinking water by methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) is a serious problem in California. In higher concentrations, it smells like turpentine and it tastes like paint thinner. MTBE can simply make drinking water simply undrinkable.

MTBE is a highly soluble organic compound which moves quickly through soil and gravel. It, therefore, poses a more rapid threat to water supplies than other constituents of gasoline when leaks occur. MTBE is easily traced, but it is very difficult and expensive to cleanup. The Association of California Water Agencies estimates that it would cost as much as $1 million per well to install treatment technology to remove MTBE from drinking water. Without these funds, the only option is to shut down wells.

A June 11 Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory study reached five important conclusions:

1. "MTBE is a frequent and widespread contaminant in shallow groundwater throughout California. There are presently 32,409 leaking underground fuel tank sites recognized in the state, 13,278 at which hydrocarbons are known to have impacted groundwater. A minimum estimate of the number of MTBE-impacted sites in California is greater than 10,000."

2. "MTBE plumes are more mobile than BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes) plumes." Thus, it moves quickly to infiltrate groundwater.

3. "The primary attenuation mechanism for MTBE is dispersion."

4. "MTBE has the potential to impact regional groundwater resources and may present a cumulative contamination hazard."

5. "We have identified two major areas of uncertainty in our results. First, presently available MTBE data are limited. Second, the issue of recalcitrance of MTBE has not been resolved."

Extent of Contamination

According to the Association of California Water Agencies, MTBE has been detected in shallow groundwater at over 10,000 sites in California. Some deeper drinking water wells have also been affected. The major contamination problems are in Santa Monica (which lost 75% of its ground water supply), South Lake Tahoe, Santa Clara Valley (Great Oaks Water Company) and Sacramento (Fruitridge Vista Water Company). Drinking water wells in each of these cities have been shut down because of MTBE contamination.

Californians are more dependent on groundwater as a source of drinking water than most Americans. According to the U. S. Geological Survey, 69 percent of California's population relies on groundwater as their source of drinking water, while for the U. S. population at large, 53 percent of the population relies on groundwater.

In addition, preliminary data show that MTBE has been detected in the following surface water reservoirs: Lake Perris (Metropolitan Water District of Southern California), Anderson Reservoir (Santa Clara Valley Water District), Canyon Lake (Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District), Pardee Reservoir and San Pablo Reservoir (East Bay Municipal Utility District), Lake Berryessa (Solano County Water Agency).

I am submitting for the record a list of groundwater MTBE detections California prepared by the state's Department of Health Services.

S. 1576 Should Be Enacted

I hope this committee can approve this bill and that we can achieve Senate passage before this Congress ends. There are several reasons.

1. First and foremost, we must get MTBE out of California's drinking water.

That is my primary goal. It tastes bad. It smells bad. And we know it is a health hazard for laboratory animals and possibly humans.

California cannot afford to lose any more of its drinking water. According to the Association of California Water Agencies, by the year 2020, California will be 4 million to 6 million acre-feet short of water each year without additional facilities and water management strategies.

2. The dangers of MTBE were not considered when Congress last amended the Clear Air Act in 1990.

According to the Congressional Research Service, during Congress's consideration of the Clean Air Act Amendments, which became law in 1990, there was no discussion of the possible adverse impacts of MTBE as a gasoline additive. Likewise, CARB has said that when they were considering our state's reformulated gasoline regulations, "the concern over the use of oxygenates was not raised as an issue."

3. California can meet federal clean air standards by using our own regulations.

The chairman of the California Air Resources Board this morning will tell you how our state can have equivalent or greater reductions in emissions and improve air quality using our own regulations, regulations which produce twice the clean air benefits. These standards are more stringent but offer gasoline manufacturers more flexibility than the prescriptive requirements. Furthermore, U. S. EPA has approved California's state implementation plan (SIP) required by the Clean Air Act and which is federally enforceable.

If we can achieve and maintain clean air and meet federal standards with our own regulations, I believe we should be allowed to do so.

4. Congress has long recognized that California is a unique case.

California's efforts to improve air quality predate similar federal efforts. We have our own clean gas program and U. S. EPA has given the state a waiver under section 209(b)(1) of the Clean Air Act to develop our own program.

Other Actions Needed Too

Leaking Underground Storage Tanks: There is no question that leaking underground petroleum or gasoline storage tanks and their pipelines are a major source of MTBE in drinking water. Fortunately, Congress has acted and all tanks are supposed to meet federal safety standards by December 22, 1998. Unfortunately, EPA estimates that only half of the nation's 600,000 will comply by that time. In my state, the State Water Resources Control Board estimates that 31,000 tanks or about 50% of the total still need to be upgraded. Our state legislature has established a trust fund to assist owners in meeting the costs of repairs. I applaud this action and in addition I have appended a copy of my letter to EPA Administrator Browner asking for her recommendations for action that we should take her and information on what actions she intends to take if all tanks are not comply by the December deadline, which is a mere 3 months away.

Accelerate Research: I have written both U.S. EPA and California EPA urging a more aggressive research agenda to more definitively ascertain the human health impacts, acute and chronic. I wrote to U. S. EPA on April 11 and 14, September 24 and on November 14, 1997. EPA responded that an interagency group had met to "finalize the research strategy for fuel oxygenates." I have again written Ms. Browner to ask the status of that strategy and when we will learn more about MTBE's hazards.

Drinking Water Standard: On November 3, 1997, I wrote Browner urging EPA to promulgate a drinking water standard for MTBE. Assistant Administrator Perciasepe responded on December 8 that EPA was finalizing a drinking water advisory on MTBE. I am grateful that EPA issued a drinking water advisory in December 1997, but this is not a standard. This is guidance only. In that same letter, he indicated that EPA had "placed MTBE on the draft Contaminant Candidate List for further evaluation to determine whether or not to regulate MTBE in drinking water." I have written again to stress that this process be accelerated.

I would like to submit for the record my correspondence with EPA.

MTBE & Respiratory Problems

A number of studies are underway to analyze the impact of MTBE on human health. I would like to bring to the committee's attention the work of Dr. Peter Joseph, Ph.D., Professor of Radiologic Physics in Radiology, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. Dr. Joseph contends that the astounding increase in asthma rates could be linked to the increasing use of MTBE in gasoline. I have urged EPA to examine this issue and hope that you can support more research on MTBE and its effect on respiratory illnesses.

I would like to submit for the record Dr. Joseph's letter to me and his study, "Changes in Disease Rates in Philadelphia Following the Introduction of Oxygenated Gasoline."


Millions of Californians should not have to drink water contaminated with MTBE. I believe we can put in place requirements for clean gasoline that do not degrade the air but that also do not contaminate our water.

I look forward to working with you toward this end.