SANTA MONICA — Frustrated by a federal decision they expect will extend California’s use of the pollutant MTBE, Southern California water agencies Friday drafted a plan to defend the region’s wells against the water-fouling gasoline additive.
The agencies recommended that the state keep polluting boat and watercraft engines out of drinking water reservoirs, allow the sale of only MTBE-free gasoline at reservoir marinas, speed disbursement of $20 million in clean-up funds to water utilities and force polluters to clean up MTBE quickly.
The Metropolitan Water District and other agencies also said Congress should be pressured to amend the Clean Air Act to allow the state’s most polluted areas to avoid using oxygenates such as MTBE.
Although MTBE makes gasoline burn cleaner, it pollutes ground water far more readily than gasoline alone. Gov. Gray Davis has ordered that MTBE be phased out by the beginning of 2003.
The state had sought a waiver of the federal oxygenate requirement, saying that relying on MTBE’s only available alternative – ethanol – wouldn’t make the air cleaner but could add up to 50 cents to the cost of a gallon of gasoline. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rejected the request last month.
The water agencies made their recommendations assuming that the state will delay its self-imposed MTBE phase-out rather than risk significantly higher gas prices.
“We’re having to choose between the health and the pocketbooks of constituents,” said Adan Ortega, Jr., a spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
“What we decided we had to do was implement an action plan that made the best use of the existing resources at our disposal.”
MTBE leaking from pipelines and underground tanks has forced the closures of many water wells, including half of those in Santa Monica.
California officials have argued that the state can meet tough gasoline emissions standards without oxygenate requirement, which they claim could expose California’s gasoline market to price manipulation and shortages if ethanol supplies fall short.
Davis gave the California Environmental Protection Agency until mid-September to recommend how to respond to the federal EPA’s ruling, said William L. Rukeyser, assistant secretary of Cal/EPA.
California has argued that cars built today are much cleaner than those that were on the road in 1990, when the Clean Air Act was last revised, and that refining technology has led to the creation of a reformulated gasoline known as RFG-3 that burns as cleanly as oxygenated gas, Rukeyser said.
The federal EPA contends that it lacks the authority to give Ca waiver. For such a request to be granted, agency officials say, Congress would have to change the requirement that gasoline sold in the nation’s most polluted areas must contain 2 percent oxygenates.