Administration to phase out gas additive MTBE

Posted: Monday, March 20, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Clinton administration announced Monday it will ban MTBE as a gasoline additive on grounds it poses a risk to public health and the environment.

MTBE, a leading oxygenate and octane booster, reduces emissions of smog, but it has been linked to groundwater pollution in California and elsewhere. It is used in one-third of the gasoline sold in the United States. Alaska pulled its use in early 1993, several months after it was introduced.

Carol Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said her agency will seek to eliminate use of MTBEs under the Toxic Substance Control Act. That law allows EPA to ban chemicals deemed to pose an unreasonable risk to the public or the environment.

''The time has come to take action,'' Browner said. Americans deserve both clean air and clean water and never one at the expense of the other.''

She said the ban, expected to take up to three years to implement, would have little effect on consumer costs.

The agency will ask Congress to eliminate a section of the 1990 Clean Air Act that requires gasoline in areas with serious air pollution to contain at least 2 percent oxygen by weight. The administration wants to replace the oxygenate standard, which led to the use of MTBE, with a requirement that a small percentage of all motor fuels be made from renewable sources, such as grain.

''The most important thing is getting rid of poisons, that's the bottom line. This is a poison,'' said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who has been pushing for the ban.

MTBE is used in all or part of 16 states, and is in much of the gasoline sold in the Northeast. There is evidence it is contaminating ground water.

Last summer, an EPA advisory panel said that while current levels of MTBE in water pose no health risk, its use should be dramatically curtailed because of potential widespread water pollution problems. MTBE has been found to be a carcinogen and poses health and environmental risks, other critics of the additive have said.

EPA officials said they are instituting the ban because Congress has not acted to eliminate use of MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether.

California, which has more leeway than other states to regulate air pollution, has already decided to ban the use of MTBE by the end of 2002. State officials have asked the EPA for a waiver from the Clean Air Act's oxygenate requirement so that the state doesn't have to switch to more expensive corn-based ethanol, which is used in Alaska. Lifting the oxygenate requirement, as the administration is proposing, would make the waiver unnecessary.

A coalition of Northeast states said last year said that low levels of MTBE were found in 15 percent of the drinking water tested in the Northeast, in most cases in amounts less than 2 parts per billion. Water begins to pose a health concern and tastes or smells bad at 30 to 70 parts per billion; about 1 percent of water supplies tested in the Northeast had concentrations above 35 parts per billion.

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