Statement of Gary Patton
General Counsel, Planning and Conservation League
Possible Water Pollution By Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE)
9:00 AM, Tuesday, December 9, 1997

Senator Boxer: My name is Gary Patton. I am delighted to be here today, and want to thank you for inviting me to testify at this important hearing, inquiring into the many issues related to water pollution by the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). Your involvement in these issues is very much welcomed and appreciated.

I am the General Counsel of the Planning and Conservation League, a statewide environmental advocacy organization. The Planning and Conservation League is a non-profit and non-partisan statewide alliance of individual citizens and conservation organizations. Located in Sacramento, PCL is the oldest environmental lobbying group in California. For over thirty years, PCL has played a key role in virtually every significant legislative effort affecting the environment, and PCL has also been successful in passing a number of environmentally beneficial statewide initiative measures. The State Legislature has recognized PCL's leadership in a resolution that states that PCL "...has been instrumental in the passage of every major piece of environmental legislation in California."

As you undoubtedly know, both national and state environmental organizations, including PCL, have strongly supported the "Cleaner Burning Gas" program implemented by the California Air Resources Board. This program is founded on fuel specification regulations promulgated by the ARB, and has required the development and use of a special blend of reformulated gasoline in this state. California's "Phase 2" reformulated gasoline regulations became effective in early 1996, and have resulted in very significant air quality improvements and have also resulted in the widespread use of MTBE as a fuel additive. MTBE now amounts to about 11% by volume of virtually all the gasoline fuel sold in California.

I served, on behalf of PCL, on a broadly based ARB advisory committee that provided oversight of the implementation of the California "Phase 2" reformulated gasoline" program. PCL was also actively involved in the legislation passed in the State Legislature earlier this year, relating to MTBE.

There is no doubt, in my opinion, that the reformulated gasoline now being used in California is truly "cleaner burning." ARB figures say that smog-forming emissions from motor vehicles have been reduced by 15%, because of the deployment of Phase 2 Reformulated gasoline. This is equivalent to having removed 3.5 million vehicles from the road. The California "Cleaner Burning Gas" program is the single most effective smog reduction measure since the introduction of the catalytic converter. California RFG also produces fewer cancer-causing emissions. ARB calculations demonstrate an overall reduction in carcinogenic risk of about 40 percent, due to the change in the gasoline formulation required by the California Phase 2 reformulated gasoline regulations. In fact, the health benefits of California's reformulated gasoline are significant.

Unfortunately, the analysis utilized when California's Phase 2 reformulated gasoline program was mandated made what has turned out to have been an unfounded assumption. It was assumed, because MTBE has been utilized as a gasoline additive for many years (though in small quantities), that changing the formulation of gasoline to replace about 11% of the benzene in gasoline with MTBE would not change any of the characteristics of the gasoline except those related to air emissions. This assumption was wrong.

A "success story" on the air quality side, MTBE is anything but a success story when water pollution is considered. Your hearing agenda today indicates that you are studying "possible" water pollution by MTBE. This is too charitable. There is no doubt that significant instances of MTBE-related water pollution have occurred in various locations throughout California, and that further and serious pollution incidents are probably inevitable. MTBE moves rapidly through soil and groundwater in a way that is different from the way that other components of gasoline move. Any gasoline leak is serious, and potentially a danger to human health and the environment. Unfortunately, leaks of gasoline containing MTBE are more serious than other gasoline leaks and not because MTBE is more carcinogenic or dangerous than benzene (in fact, there is evidence that MTBE is safer than benzene, which is highly carcinogenic). The problem is the rapid deployment of MTBE in soil and groundwater, which leads to a more difficult clean up situation, and the fact that MTBE contamination makes water unusable for drinking water purposes when even minute amounts of MTBE are present, because of odor and taste problems.

PCL is greatly concerned with the water contamination problems associated with MTBE, which is why we supported the three pieces of state legislation enacted last year, SB 1189 by Senator Tom Hayden, AB 592 by Assembly Member Sheila Kuehl, and SB 521 by Senator Richard Mountjoy. Both the Hayden and Kuehl bills mandate that a primary and secondary drinking water standard for MTBE be developed, and they mandate improvements in pipeline and underground tank safety programs. Senator Mountjoy's bill in its final form requires a study of the comparative study of the human health and environmental risks and benefits, if any, associated with the use of MTBE in gasoline, as compared to other possible additives, including ethanol. The study mandated by SB 521, as you undoubtedly know, is to be completed in early 1999. Based on the final document, incorporating comments from the public and relevant state and federal agencies, the Governor must make a certification either that "on balance, there is no significant risk to human health or the environment of using MTBE in gasoline" or that there is a significant risk. If the Governor determines that there is a significant risk, he is directed to implement appropriate action in response to his finding. Clearly, this could result in the prohibition of the further use of MTBE in gasoline.

PCL did not support the early version of SB 521, which would have "banned" MTBE effective immediately. As stated, however, we do believe that a thorough, but rapid, study is called for, and that it may well be advisable, when the results of that study have been received, to take action that will result in the elimination of MTBE from California gasoline.

Is there, in the meantime, something we can do and that you and the Congress can do? Yes.

All gasoline leaks into soil and groundwater are dangerous to the public health and the environment. Both state and federal requirements can be tightened.

Alternative oxygenates should be made available. It is time to begin seriously considering the use of ethanol, which, while it has a number of potential problems, also has many positive features that make it an attractive substitute for synthetic oxygenates like MTBE.

We will use less gasoline, and thus pollute the air less, and expose groundwater to less risk, to the degree that we can transition to non-petroleum transportation fuels. We will also achieve these positive results to the degree that we can

increase fuel efficiency and substitute transit and rail transportation for transportation based on the single occupancy auto. The federal government can play a key role in achieving all of these ends, and I encourage you and your colleagues to pursue them. In fact, we need longer term, fundamental strategies for reform. By achieving such long term and fundamental reforms, we can generate a positive outcome from the genuine public health and environmental crisis occasioned by the water pollution incidents involving MTBE that are now occurring throughout California, and that we must assume will continue to occur.

Thank you again for allowing me to testify here today.