testimony of Paul J. Granger, PE

 Water District Superintendent

Plainview Water District, New York

 for the hearing

on legislative proposals amending the clean air act regarding fuel additives and renewable fuels

on the use of the fuel additive MTBE and the adverse impact on drinking water supplies

 

 United states senate subcommittee on clean air, climate change and nuclear safety

March 20, 2003

 

I would like to thank the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works for providing an opportunity to the Plainview Water District to comment publicly on the use of the fuel additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (hereinafter, “MTBE”) and the adverse impact on drinking water supplies.

 

My name is Paul Granger and I have 15 years of engineering and management experience in the water supply field. I am a licensed Professional Engineer, New York State Certified I-B water treatment plant operator and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering from Polytechnic University. Presently, I am the Superintendent of Engineering and Business Administration of the Plainview Water District. I also serve on the Board of Directors for the Long Island Water Conference and as Vice-chair of the New York State Water Utility Council. Prior to my employment with the Water District, I was a project manager with the Long Island consulting engineering firm, H2M Group, for 8 years.  My experience with the firm included the design of water supply and treatment facilities and the preparation of water supply, management and treatment studies for many Long Island water purveyors.

 

The Plainview Water District is located in Nassau County, New York and encompasses all of Plainview and Old Bethpage as well as portions of Syosset and Woodbury. The district is one of the larger water systems on Long Island and strictly relies on groundwater as the sole source of drinking water in the community.

 

Potable water, meeting all local, state and federal standards is furnished to 10,510 accounts within a 9 square mile area through 130.4 miles of water main servicing approximately 32,100 residents (population is estimated based on 2002 Long Island Power Authority Census data). The Water District maintains eleven supply wells at six sites providing a maximum design capacity of 22.44 million gallons per day (MGD). All of the supply wells are screened into the Magothy aquifer, which is the primary water supply source for more than three million residents of Long Island.

 

My comments today specifically address my first-hand experience and knowledge of the adverse impact of the fuel additive MTBE on our drinking water supply. MTBE was touted by the EPA as the panacea for providing clean air and has been in use since 1979 as a gasoline additive. It was originally intended to be used to help gasoline burn more efficiently and prevent engine knocking after lead was phased out of the fuel supply. More recently, with the promulgation of the 1990 Clean Air Act, MTBE has been widely used as an additive in reformulated gasoline for reducing carbon monoxide emissions from motor vehicles. All of the gasoline sold on Long Island since 1992 contains approximately 15 percent MTBE. On a national basis, the use of MTBE translates into absolutely staggering quantities.  In 1999 alone, more than 200,000 barrels of MTBE were manufactured per day in the United States.  As a result, MTBE is one of the highest volume chemicals produced in the country.  MTBE can also be present in fuel oil or other petroleum products, perhaps due to cross production contamination.

 

The registration of MTBE with the federal government as an acceptable additive for reducing air pollution had initially perceived good intentions, but failed to assess the additive’s environmental and public health consequences. Available toxicological data demonstrate that MTBE can cause cancers and non-cancerous health effects. The EPA in 1993 stated that “MTBE supports a hazard classification of possible human carcinogen …. based on limited animal research.”  Recent and “after the fact” research and experience has revealed that MTBE can and inevitably will poison our nation’s water supply.

 

The widespread use of MTBE in reformulated gasoline and impact of the compound on water supply systems throughout the country has raised the serious concerns of the Plainview Water District and regional water purveyors.  MTBE has much different characteristics when compared to typical petroleum based compounds and additives. When gasoline-containing MTBE is released into the ground through a leaking tank or spill, it tends to migrate downward due to the force of gravity.  If the ground is not saturated with water, the gasoline/MTBE mixture initially spreads through the aerated soils as a liquid and then volatilizes into soil gas vapor.  If the gasoline/MTBE mixture encounters saturated groundwater, the MTBE dissolves into the groundwater and migrates in the direction of prevailing flow. Once in the groundwater supply this compound does not biodegrade, has a propensity to sink in the aquifer system and is soluble in water. Furthermore, MTBE is difficult to remove from groundwater with the traditional methods of air stripping and granular activated carbon filtration. Therefore, treatment for MTBE removal would be far more expensive. Ultimately the cost for MTBE removal from the water supply is borne by the consumer.

 

MTBE primarily makes its way into the groundwater supply through fuel spills. Anywhere gasoline-containing MTBE is manufactured, stored, used, handled, transported or released in any way into the environment, the potential exists for MTBE pollution problems.  The bigger the release, the bigger the potential for pollution problems. For example, a cup of gasoline/MTBE dumped on the ground will typically not migrate far before most of it evaporates into the air. Ten thousand gallons of gasoline/MTBE leaking from a tank could spread from hundreds of feet to more than one mile depending on soil and environmental conditions if the spill is not cleaned up. 

 

 Gaseous MTBE spreads outward from its point of origin and can penetrate nearby homes, buildings or structures through holes, cracks or other openings.  Gaseous MTBE can follow "preferential pathways," such as porous soils or sewer, water, gas and electric conduits.  Indoor air quality problems can result.

 

Groundwater is generated when rain, snow and other forms of precipitation fall on the ground and migrates downward into the underlying saturated zone of soil or rock.  Groundwater contaminated with MTBE migrates freely through the environment and can cause indoor air quality problems by flooding into structures. It can also threaten drinking water.

 

MTBE-contaminated groundwater typically flows downward and eventually outward into surface waters.  Drinking water drawn from MTBE-contaminated rivers, lakes or reservoirs can be polluted, though MTBE is often diluted in surface waters.  More typically, wells screened into MTBE contaminated groundwater draw the pollution into their supply system. Wells generate an area of hydraulic influence. Small private wells drawing hundreds of gallons of water per day from the ground have a much smaller area of hydraulic influence than public water supply wells drawing millions of gallons of water per day.  MTBE discharged near a well or migrating through its area of hydraulic influence is slowly, but surely, drawn into the well.

 

Once MTBE is introduced into the environment, it can be extremely difficult and expensive to investigate or remediate. First, the pollution is underground and tricky to locate.  Delineating an MTBE plume often requires dozens of groundwater monitoring wells or extensive subsurface investigations.  Second, removing MTBE from impacted soil, soil gas vapor or polluted groundwater can be technically challenging.  Since the pollution may have migrated over a large area, vast quantities of contamination may have to be removed or treated.

 

Clean-up delays occur because regulatory standards for MTBE in groundwater and drinking water are not comprehensive.  For example, New York adopted a groundwater remediation guideline of ten parts per billion in late 1999, but failed for four years to adopt a proposed Maximum Contaminant Level in drinking water.

 

Enforcement of applicable clean-up standards is also lax. It is not at all unusual for clean up of major tank failures to be delayed for ten years or longer.  In many cases, it is all but impossible to remediate a large spill after that length of time. Given all of these shortcomings, it is no surprise that the nation has inherited an MTBE groundwater pollution crisis that could prove unprecedented in our environmental history.

 

During November 2000, the MTBE threat to the Plainview Water District became a sudden and un-welcomed reality when a large gasoline spill containing a very high concentration of MTBE was found within 450 feet of a vital drinking water supply well facility. An MTBE level of 840 parts per billion (ppb) was detected in the groundwater beneath the spill site. This is more than 80 times the 10 ppb state groundwater clean-up guideline. The MTBE spill will eventually impact two local drinking water supply wells unless immediate and determined action is taken to remediate the spill and provide treatment at the supply wells. Exhibit A depicts the close proximity of the spill site with respect to the aforementioned water district supply facility. At this time the polluter, Exxon-Mobil, has not taken action to fully delineate the groundwater contamination and clean up the impacted aquifer. It should be noted that Exxon-Mobil officially reported the MTBE spill to New York State Department of Environmental Conservation during 1997. What is unfortunate and disturbing is that the Plainview Water District discovered the spill on its own volition more than three years after the incident was reported. Both Exxon-Mobil and the state environmental agency failed to notify the water district of the significant and threatening spill. What is further disturbing is that more than six years has elapsed and the contamination continues to migrate unabated toward our vital water supply facility.

 

At this time the Plainview Water District is undertaking prompt proactive legal action against Mobil to ensure that the spill will be cleaned and MTBE does not pollute our supply wells. Furthermore, our legal action will rightfully shift the enormous financial burden of wellhead treatment onto the polluter (responsible party) rather than onto the ratepayer. The water district is looking to the future and does not want to wait for the aforementioned pollution problem to become a crisis. The Plainview Water District is the first water supplier in New York State to undertake such progressive and proactive action. No matter what the outcome of the legal action is, we will take every responsible measure to protect public health, while also protecting the financial interest of our residents. To illustrate this point, the water district has constructed an outpost early detection monitoring well system. This cluster of monitoring wells will provide the water district with advanced warning should the MTBE plume continue to move toward our supply wells at Plant 1. 

 

Since the November 2000 MTBE spill discovery by the Water District, three other significant spills have been documented within our service area. These additional spills also threaten our supply wells and other facilities operated by neighboring water systems. It must be noted that all Plainview Water District supply wells are free from MTBE at this time and we are carefully monitoring them. Residents can be assured that the water district is taking every proactive measure to protect public health.

 

As a result of vigilant monitoring by water utilities and regional health departments, the chemical is now being detected in many public and private water supply wells throughout the country. In some instances the chemical is being detected in only trace levels while in other cases, MTBE has been found in very high concentrations.  On Long Island, MTBE has been detected primarily in trace levels in more than 130 supply wells. At this time, only a handful of public supply wells have been shut down on Long Island due to MTBE contamination.  This does not mean that we should not be concerned. Based on present day pumpage conditions, it can take many years before the contaminant travels into the deep regions of the groundwater system and impacts our public water supply wells. It should be noted that hundreds of shallow private wells on Long Island have been contaminated with MTBE and have been taken out of service. To underscore my concern and the concerns of the water supply community, New York has identified some 1,970 MTBE spill sites with 430 of them on Long Island alone. Exhibit B provides a map of the MTBE spills documented in New York State that do not meet clean-up standards. While the map depicted in Exhibit C provides an illustration of the magnitude of the MTBE crisis in the downstate region.  New York State is not alone in this crisis, since California itself has 10,000 MTBE-contaminated sites. At least 21 states have reported well closures due to MTBE groundwater contamination. During January 2000, the MTBE and water supply contamination crisis captured national attention when 60 Minutes broadcasted a rare double segment on the topic. The American Water Works Association estimates that water suppliers are already faced with a national cost exceeding $1 billion to prevent, clean up, and treat MTBE-contaminated supplies. It is clearly evident that MTBE must be immediately banned before the problem worsens.

 

According to a 1998 study from the University of California at Davis it was concluded that “ there is no significant additional air quality benefit to the use of oxygenates such as MTBE in reformulated gasoline.” Furthermore, the 800 page study noted that while federal law mandates the use of oxygenates in reformulated gasoline, MTBE addition has “no significant effect” on the emissions from modern vehicles while presenting “significant risks and costs associated with water contamination.” The report authors recommended phasing out MTBE use, giving refiners flexibility to achieve air quality objectives by improving non-oxygenated reformulated gasoline and conducting a full environmental assessment of any MTBE alternative.  A fact sheet summary of the aforementioned study is provided in Exhibit D. It should also be noted that the National Research Council concluded that there is no significant additional air quality benefit to the use of oxygenates such as MTBE in reformulated gasoline.

 

It is encouraging to see that the EPA Blue Ribbon Panel, commissioned to assess the use of MTBE, has recommended the elimination of the chemical from all gasoline. In addition, the panel recommended that the mandatory oxygen requirement for reformulated gasoline be eliminated. Vigilance must be maintained by our government representatives to ensure that the Blue Ribbon Panel recommendations are followed and the MTBE threat is eliminated. If any other additives mandates (such as the mandate for ethanol) are considered for the replacement of MTBE, let us hope that the government performs a “full” environmental and health assessment before it is implemented. However, based on the findings made in past studies, the present mandate for oxygenates, such as MTBE and ethanol, is inapplicable.

 

It is my understanding that a “safe harbor” provision is under serious consideration as Congress deliberates proposals for amending the Clean Air Act regarding fuel additives and renewable fuels. The proposed provision would unjustly shield the petroleum and ethanol industries from defective product liability under federal and state law for the use of either MTBE or renewable fuels including ethanol. Such a provision would unfairly place the monumental clean-up and treatment costs on water suppliers and ultimately the customer. The evidence is clear that the contamination of water supplies across the nation by MTBE will only worsen. Swift and determined action must be taken to eliminate the MTBE threat. Providing a “safe harbor” for the parties that created the problem shifts the enormous economic and public health burden ultimately onto the innocent parties, namely the water consumer. Furthermore, based on my experience as a water supplier on Long Island, the MTBE problem will only worsen since we are only seeing the “tip of the iceberg” at this time.

 

I respectfully request that our federal legislators take careful note of the substantial MTBE drinking water contamination problems already experienced by and currently facing water suppliers throughout the country.  In addition, it is very important to consider the scientific facts concerning the use of MTBE as it relates to public health and the environment. It is extremely important that legislative proposals mandating other oxygenates (such as ethanol) be considered based on sound science. To re-emphasizes this concern, previous credible scientific studies concluded that there is no significant additional air quality benefit to the use of oxygenates in reformulated gasoline. Therefore, why run the risk of repeating the MTBE mistake all over again.  

 

 It is apparent that risks associated with the use of MTBE far out weigh benefits. Prompt action needs to be taken in order to eliminate the MTBE threat to our water supply once and for all. The Senate and government as a whole still has time to prevent MTBE from becoming a national drinking water catastrophe if prompt and proper action is undertaken at this time. In conclusion, I recommend that the following be strongly considered as the Senate deliberates proposals for amending the Clean Air Act regarding fuel additives and renewable fuel:

 

 

·       Based on the present impact and expanding threat to water supplies nationally, MTBE must be swiftly phased out of all gasoline.

 

·       The oxygenate mandate contained in the present Clean Air Act must be removed based on the conclusions and recommendations made by prominent studies and the EPA Blue Ribbon Panel.

 

·       The legal rights of water suppliers and consumers must be upheld so that the vast clean-up burden is not placed on taxpayers. Providing a liability “safe harbor” eliminates a vital tool to protect the economic, environmental and public health interests of the water consumer.

 

·       Comprehensive environmental and health assessments must be performed on other fuel additives before they go into use so that we do not repeat the same MTBE mistake.

 

·       Establish and strictly enforce national groundwater and drinking water standards for MTBE.

 

·       Implement and properly fund a national study to address the MTBE crisis. An emphasis should be placed on groundwater clean up and the treatment of impacted drinking water supplies.  

 

·       Provide federal funding for local water utilities to address the MTBE contamination crisis. Regional water suppliers have been or will be forced to remediate pollution hazards that they did not create.

 

 

Vigilance and care must be undertaken to ensure that our sources of drinking water are of high quality, ample quantity and of reasonable cost for the present population and future generations throughout the nation. Let us rest assured that the public water suppliers will undertake the necessary measures to ensure that safe drinking water is supplied to the public. We need immediate help from the federal government to insure that our water supply remains safe and economically viable for public consumption.

 

Thank you for your time and providing me with the opportunity to address you today.

 

_________________

 

Attachments:

 

·       Exhibit A – Map of Gasoline / MTBE Spills Threatening Plainview Water District Supply Well 1-2.

 

·       Exhibit B  Map of MTBE Spills in New York State Not Meeting Clean-up Standards – 1,970 Spills Identified.

 

·       Exhibit C – Map of MTBE Spills in Downstate New York  Not Meeting Clean-up Standards – 704 Spills Identified Downstate.

 

·       Exhibit D - University of California (UC) Report: MTBE Fact Sheet dated November 12, 1998.