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Gas additive shows up
in bay area wells

Efforts are under way to ban MTBE, a poten- tial cancer-causing agent, but it's too late for many water sources.

By DAVID PEDREIRA

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2000


TAMPA -- First came the headaches.

Mark Albritton and his wife got severe migraines every time they showered.

Then came the smell.

Whenever they opened their taps, the Albrittons noticed an odor of gasoline or turpentine wafting from their well water.

The couple wondered whether they were imagining things. Then, late last year, a public health inspector knocked on their door.

photo
[Times art] 

Like a half-dozen other residents in their tree-lined community off Fletcher Avenue, the Albrittons' well was polluted with dangerous levels of MTBE, a gasoline additive fouling public water supplies and private wells from California to Florida.

"I have an 8-year-old son who I'm worried about," said Albritton, whose well is now fitted with a massive carbon filter, courtesy of the state. "The government knows there's a danger with this stuff, why are they still letting the oil companies put it in our gasoline?"

While Florida's political leaders have taken little notice of the national debate on MTBE, an analysis of computer records by the St. Petersburg Times shows traces of the potentially carcinogenic additive have been found in more than 2,400 locations throughout the state since 1989.

Amounts of MTBE high enough to be detected by smell, or more than 5 parts per billion, were found in 767 well or groundwater samples across Florida, state records show.

Hillsborough County leads the way.

In the past 11 years, Health Department workers have found sizable levels of MTBE at 96 Hillsborough wells. Nearly a third of those exceeded federal safety limits, forcing the state to install filters or connect well owners to municipal water lines.

Throughout Tampa Bay, inspectors have found significant levels of MTBE in at least 139 other wells, including 47 in Pasco, 31 in Sarasota, 26 in Citrus, 21 in Hernando and 14 in Pinellas.

At least 36 of those wells were polluted beyond federal safety limits. Hundreds of others in the bay area have been tainted with traces of the chemical.

And small wells aren't the only concern.

While MTBE apparently hasn't seeped into municipal reservoirs or Florida's deep aquifer, a U.S. Geological Survey study released last week shows the gasoline additive poses a risk to nearly half the public water-supply systems in the state.

Leaking underground storage tanks -- the main source of MTBE contamination -- are within 1 kilometer, about six-tenths of a mile, of 2,066 public water-supply wells in Florida, potentially affecting cities from St. Petersburg to Miami, the USGS reported.

photo
[Times photo: Mike Pease]
James Johnson shows the filtration system installed on his water line by the state after testing found dangerous levels of MTBE in his well water.

"There is a lot of MTBE in the state of Florida," said Ray Steiner, a chemist at the state Department of Health who tracks the chemical in his laboratory. "I've seen some water tests that are like raw gasoline samples."

The Clinton administration is moving to ban MTBE, after years of being bombarded with reports from across the nation that the substance is polluting water supplies.

But even if MTBE is banned, the Environmental Protection Agency admits, it may take as many as 10 years before it no longer endangers drinking water supplies. European scientists linked MTBE to liver and kidney tumors in mice in a mid-1990s study. The EPA considers it a possible human carcinogen.

MTBE added to make cleaner-burning gasoline

Methyl tertiary butyl ether was supposed to help the environment by reducing air pollution.

Developed by oil companies in the 1970s to replace lead in gasoline, MTBE is an "oxygenate," meaning it adds oxygen to gasoline and increases octane.

It also makes gas burn cleaner, cutting vehicle emissions by as much as 40 percent in some cases. When the Clean Air Act passed in 1990, the EPA ordered the nation's smoggiest metropolitan areas to put a percentage of oxygenate additives in gasoline.

MTBE became the resounding favorite. Today, MTBE is in the gas tanks of nearly 70 percent of U.S. cars.

It's not required in Florida, but a large portion of the gasoline sold in the state contains at least some MTBE, officials said.

MTBE advocates say it has done more to reduce air pollution than anything else developed in the United States. They question a study showing MTBE causes cancer in animals, pointing out that several U.S. health associations have declined to list it as a carcinogen.

"Because of cleaner-burning gasoline with MTBE, cities like Los Angeles are enjoying their best air quality in 50 years," said Terry Wigglesworth, executive director of the Oxygenated Fuels Association. "Common sense dictates there is not an MTBE problem in this country, there is an underground storage tank problem."

While MTBE has generally pleased air regulators by reducing smoggy emissions, those who keep an eye on water pollution began to notice two insidious characteristics.

First, MTBE doesn't degrade quickly when it leaks into the ground.

It has a nasty habit of sticking around.

Second, the additive is highly soluble in water. Water experts were baffled by the amazing speed that MTBE traveled underground after it mixed with water. In some cases, it even ran uphill.

Virginia Beard, who used to test Hillsborough wells for volatile chemicals before taking a job with the state, said she quickly learned that if she found MTBE in a well, other chemicals would likely follow.

"MTBE is sort of the canary in the coal mine," Beard said. "It's the first thing you're going to see."

In California, which has one of the worst MTBE problems in the country, water managers learned this lesson the hard way.

Santa Monica lost more than half of its public supply when a large portion of its production well fields were fouled by MTBE. The city is now shipping in water, and estimates the cleanup from several spills will cost $100-million.

A problem anywhere gas can seep into the ground

In Florida, MTBE contamination has received little public attention despite the fact that state regulators have been testing wells for its presence since 1989.

The Sunshine State has nowhere near the amount of MTBE contamination as states that were mandated to oxygenate their gasoline, officials said. But records show MTBE has popped up in well and groundwater tests in virtually every Florida county.

Hillsborough has one of the worst problems because it is highly industrial and has many leaking underground storage tanks, Steiner, the health department chemist, said.

But underground tanks aren't the only cause of MTBE contamination. Inspectors have found traces of the substance around old junkyards, landfills and service stations -- virtually anywhere gasoline can seep into the ground.

Since 1989, Hillsborough health inspectors have found wells with unsafe levels of MTBE in Plant City, Tampa, Dover, Sun City Center, Lutz and the area surrounding the University of South Florida, state records show.

In Pasco County, more than 50 Holiday residents sued Chevron and the Pasco County Health Department last year, after they discovered wells in their community had been fouled with the additive.

In the Albrittons' neighborhood, residents first noticed a bad smell in their tap water last summer. An old gas station sits on a rise just north of N 53rd Street, a few hundred yards from Peter Pullara's home. Pullara thinks one of the tanks at the station ruptured sometime last summer, spilling gasoline into the shallow aquifer.

His water fouled in a matter of days.

"I opened up the spigot and thought I was drinking high test," Pullara said. "Let's just say you didn't need a cocktail before dinner after drinking that stuff."

State health officials put carbon filters on the Pullaras' well this year after finding MTBE levels of 334 parts per billion -- nearly 10 times higher than the federal government allows.

Peter and Harriett Pullara still don't drink their tap water. The couple recently had their blood tested to make sure they weren't suffering any toxic side effects.

Albritton has taken things a step further, discussing possible legal action with an attorney.

"My health hasn't been that great the last six months," Albritton said. "And I can't even sell this house until I get put on city water. No mortgage company will finance a home with contaminated water."

Fixing polluted wells like the ones on N 53rd Street has been a fairly costly endeavor for the state.

Charles Coultas, head of the Department of Environmental Protection's water supply restoration program, says Florida spends as much as $1-million a year on finding and cleaning petroleum spills.

So far in 2000, $96,000 has been dedicated to fix wells contaminated with petroleum additives, Coultas said. The money comes from gasoline taxes.

The fact that any wells in Hillsborough are contaminated with MTBE came as a shock to Pat Frank, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Commission.

Frank and Commissioner Chris Hart asked the county Environmental Protection Commission for a report on MTBE earlier this year, after seeing a feature about the petroleum additive on 60 Minutes.

EPC Director Roger Stewart assured the commissioners MTBE hadn't been found in the county's public water. He made no mention of private wells.

Last month, the Hillsborough County Water Department put out a news release saying tests on the public water supply in 1996 found no traces of MTBE.

"Hillsborough County water customers can be assured their water does not contain this chemical," it said.

Frank said Thursday that she will ask county staff for a more detailed report on MTBE, covering both private and public wells.

"With the scarce water supply we have right now, we can't afford to pollute any of it," Frank said.

"I am astonished about this."

Pullara, a war veteran who moved to Tampa 36 years ago, said he understands the government's initial interest in MTBE. He just can't understand why it took more than a decade for expectations to turn into alarm.

"They tried to clean the air and they ended up fouling the water," Pullara said. "I guess the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

Computer-assisted reporting specialist Constance Humburg contributed to this report.

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