SEPTEMBER 16, 1998

Good afternoon. Chairman Chafee and members of the Committee. I am Ned Sullivan, commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, and I am pleased to come before you to share Maine's experience with the federal reformulated gasoline program and with the oxygenate MTBE.

History of Maine's participation in the reformulated gasoline program

The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 required that reformulated gasoline be sold in the nation's worst ozone nonattainment areas. The law also provided that a state with lesser ozone nonattainment problems could participate in ("opt into") the program by making a formal request to the EPA administrator.

In 1991, as part of a regional action to achieve and maintain attainment with the federal ozone standard, Maine's Governor John McKernan requested that the entire state participate in the program. EPA responded that Maine could only "opt in" counties described as marginal nonattainment or worse.

Maine eventually proceeded with RFG sales in 7 counties. The program was officially implemented January 1, 1995.

The RFG blend is the same one sold in parts or all of 11 northeast states and the District of Columbia. As required by federal law, it must contain at least two percent oxygen. This is accomplished by adding an "oxygenate", which in Maine and most states, is MTBE.

Benefits provided by Maine's RFG program

The RFG program accounts for nearly one-third of the hydrocarbon emissions reductions Maine is required to achieve under the Clean Air Act. The program provides reductions comparable to a state-of-the-art vehicle emissions testing program_an option that was soundly rejected by Maine voters and lawmakers. As the remaining core component of Maine's Clean Air Plan, RFG was projected to reduce the amount of hydrocarbons emitted to Maine's air by seven tons per summer weekday.

Air quality in Maine has improved. Since the program has been in force, we have continued to see a downward trend in the number of days that monitored ozone levels exceed the federal one-hour standard. This has happened despite a slight increase in average temperature, which would be expected to trigger additional episodes. (CHART)

The improved air quality has been recognized by EPA, which has revoked the one-hour ozone standard for four counties, effectively considering them to be in attainment. Maine and EPA are reviewing the summer's ozone data to determine whether additional counties can also be given a clean bill of health under the one~ hour standard.

In addition, we have monitored a reduction in the toxic compounds detected in ambient air. Motor vehicles are estimated to account for roughly fifty percent of all cancers associated with exposure to air toxins. However, RFG burns more cleanly and more completely destroys toxic components of gasoline, making the emissions themselves less poisonous. More to the point today, MTBE, as the oxygenate component of RFG, replaces some of the benzene in conventionally-blended gasoline. (CHART) The first round of monitoring since RFG has been in use in Maine has shown a 22.5% reduction in benzene levels of ambient air. Benzene is a known carcinogen.

According to a study conducted by the Northeast states for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM), the cancer risk reduction associated with the use of RFG in the Northeast ranges from a low of 9 percent to a high of 12 percent as compared to conventional gasoline.

Public and legislative concern regarding Maine's RFG program

Despite these benefits, Maine people have been concerned about RFG use since before the program was even implemented. Health risk implications as well as cost and performance considerations were examined during public hearings and meetings.

During the first two months of the program (January and February 1995), the state's Bureau of Health received numerous complaints regarding the new gasoline blend. They included dizziness, lightheadedness and respiratory symptoms. Skin irritations were also reported. In March 1995, Governor King chartered a task force of health professionals to survey the literature on health risks, evaluate the health problems reported by Maine people, and consider the pros and cons, from a health perspective, of continuing to use RFG. The task force did not recommend banning RFG but did call for more air sampling and an additional study of MTBE health effects.

In every legislative session since January 1995, a bill has been introduced to terminate Maine's RFG program. In every instance, the primary argument against the program has been the health and environmental risks that some associate with MTBE. The resulting debates and calls for additional studies have thus far enabled the program to remain the cornerstone of Maine's clean air plan, albeit with shaky support.

During the last session, the state Bureau of Health gained legislative support for a drinking water standard for MTBE. The state toxicologist proposed that the standard be 35 ppb, and that was adopted by the legislature after considerable discussion. It was also understood at that time that the state's environmental protection agency (DEP) would take the more conservative position of cleaning up any water supply showing 25 ppb.

MTBE and Maine's ground water

Maine's Department of Environmental Protection first documented MTBE in ground water in 1985, ten years before MTBE-containing RFG was sold in Maine. The contamination was linked to leaking underground or above ground gasoline storage tanks. We are now nearing completion of our underground storage tank replacement program, having removed more than 30,000 or 98 percent of them.

This past June, I reported to the Maine State Legislature on the levels of MTBE in drinking water supplies. Approximately 84 percent of the private wells showing detectable levels of MTBE had concentrations below DEP's 25 ppb threshold for taking action. Seven percent exceeded the state Bureau of Health's health guideline which was then 50 ppb. We are now updating our figures to address the recent adoption of a new health standard.

Also in June, the Bureau of Health reported to Governor King and the legislature that 23 of 333 public water supplies (approximately 7%) had detectable levels of MTBE. The mean concentration was 2.8 ppb.

Despite this history, public concern heightened sharply this spring as a string of contamination events focussed even more public attention on the potential for MTBE contamination of Maine's ground water. Notably, more than 60% of the population of Maine rely on wells for their drinking water supplies.

Briefly, those events included:

Gasoline contamination at a new state-of-the-art station and convenience store located 700 and 1 100 feet respectively from two public wells serving 3000 customers in a growing community in southern Maine. MTBE was detected at trace levels in both wells: fortunately these levels appear to have peaked at approximately 3 ppb and are declining. MTBE at the gas station, however, reached 7140 ppb and 499 ppb at an off-site monitoring well. The gasoline station has been shut down since April. The exact source of the contamination has not been pinpointed.

In May, private well contamination by MTBE was discovered in the adjoining town. Twenty-four wells had some detectable levels of the compound, with eleven showing contamination requiring filtration. The current thesis is that a car accident resulting in the spill of a small amount of gasoline led to this widespread problem.

During the same week in May, MTBE at nearly 500 ppb was detected in a well supplying an elementary school. The water is now being filtered for washing and the school is relying on bottled water for drinking. One new well has been dug and another may be needed to fully rectify the problem. Again the cause seems to be spillage from a vehicle on site. The amount spilled was probably quite small.

In each instance, the public has seen high visibility contamination, by a compound many have already begun to distrust, caused by a relatively small, or even unknown, accident. This has contributed significantly to public anxiety.

Governor King has acted quickly and decisively by ordering that all public wells and 1000 private wells throughout the state be tested to determine the extent to which MTBE is showing up in Maine's drinking water. He has also ordered DEP to study alternatives to the current RFG formulation in the event that our study supports a decision to cease using MTBE. In addition, we are exploring measures to protect our ground water from new spills or leaks. Decisions will be made on next steps later this month once the test results have been analyzed.

Problem definition and proposed solution

We have quickly found ourselves in the midst of a public policy dilemma. We recognize the real clean air benefits produced in a relatively short time as a result of using MTBE-containing RFG in Maine. On the other hand, there appears to be growing evidence that this same product is causing water quality problems that may prove to be significant.

Given the need to maintain the improvements we have recorded in air quality, and the commitment to make additional strides toward cleaner air, we must continue to aggressively address pollution caused by petroleum-powered motor vehicles.

The problem seems to be the inflexibility posed by the federal definition of RFG. It requires the use of oxygenates like MTBE at specified levels.

With growing public concerns, unfinished studies and the continuing need to develop a sound data base regarding the benefits and risks associated with MTBE, this requirement limits our options. It limits our ability to switch to other fuels that might not contain as much, or even any, oxygenate, yet offer the same, or greater, environmental benefit, at less environmental risk. It dictates a control strategy that may not be the best for Maine.

In contrast, with the exception of its mandate for a vehicle emissions testing program in Ozone Transport Region states, the Clean Air Act often sets performance standards while allowing flexibility as to how the goals are achieved. A prime example of this is the development of state plans to reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds by 15 percent. There are federal guidelines and clear performance standards to be met, but the plans need not fit a specified template.

I believe that this should also be the model for RFG. Federal and state law should set content-neutral performance standards for gasoline that will provide the required air quality benefits: these same laws should not set prescriptive content volumes for refiners to meet.

Because they now do, Maine finds itself constrained as we try to develop the best clean air strategy. As a state we consume a tiny fraction of the national gasoline market. We are subject to a mandate that dictates a particular approach to our region's needs. We don't have the flexibility, let alone the clout, do what may be best for our state.

The states can meet the requirements and goals of the Clean Air Act, with your help. By setting tight performance standards instead of product mandates, the federal government paves the way for achieving the best results at least cost...results that tolerate no environmental backsliding but results that avoid environmental risk-shifting.

In conclusion, I would urge you to support legislation that would provide such flexibility nationwide. I would be happy to work with the Committee in crafting such legislation.

Thank you for your attention.