MTBE Liability Issues Included in House Version of Energy Bill
Mayors Urged to Call on Congress to Reject Provision Granting Immunity for Fuel Additive
By Brett Rosenberg
September 8, 2003
The U.S. House and Senate conference committee will likely debate whether a proposed comprehensive energy bill will include an amendment limiting the liability of MTBE manufacturers in remediating contaminated sites. The House bill, H.R. 6, includes a liability provision while the Senate bill, S. 517, does not. H.R. 6 grants what is referred to as a safe harbor to MTBE manufacturers, giving them immunity from claims that the fuel additive is "defective in design or manufacture." MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, is a chemical additive used in gasoline to reduce harmful air emissions from motor vehicles; however, as underground storage tanks and pipelines leak into aquifers or gasoline enters surface water supplies, MTBE's extreme solubility allows for widespread contamination, even in miniscule amounts. One cup of MTBE, the amount contained in a gallon of reformulated gasoline, is enough to contaminate five million gallons of water. If approved and enacted, the amendment would essentially exempt companies that manufacture MTBE from paying the clean-up costs of MTBE-contaminated groundwater and surface water supplies a problem plaguing many municipal water systems.
During its annual meeting in Denver, the U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted a policy opposing limited liability for MTBE manufacturers, stating that such a provision would potentially pass undue costs and burdens on to local governments. In a letter to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee leadership, the Conference of Mayors urged Senators Pete Dominici and Jeff Bingaman to oppose any amendment granting a safe harbor provision to MTBE manufacturers. In a recent memo, the Conference strongly requested that mayors call their Representatives and Senators and urge them to contact Energy Bill conferees to not include any provision or adopt any amendment providing such safe harbor for MTBE. In addition, a coalition of several water utilities has urged its members to support opposition to H.R. 6, indicating that consumers should not have to bear the costs of cleaning contamination ostensibly caused by MTBE manufacturers.
1990 Amendments to the federal Clean Air Act required urban areas in nonattainment for ozone a key element of smog begin selling reformulated gasoline in 1995 to reduce harmful emissions. In states without ready ethanol supplies, MTBE initially appeared to be an effective means of supplying the oxygen content necessary to gasoline in order to reduce ozone formation. As evidence of its threat began to accumulate, several states banned MTBE's use as fuel additive, citing its harmful environmental effects - namely, its potential carcinogenic properties and negative impacts on water's taste and odor. Many other states are in the process of phasing out the use of the additive.
Current projections estimate that removing MTBE contamination from the nation's water supplies could approach $29 billion. At least 500 public drinking-water wells and 45,000 private wells across the country are contaminated, in addition to the approximately 140,000 underground storage tanks still leaking gasoline containing the additive.