Gasoline additive deemed harmful

A government panel called for reductions of MTBE, meant to fight pollution in Pa., N.J. and 14 more states.

By H. Josef Hebert

WASHINGTON - In a major reversal in environmental policy, a government advisory panel today will urge widespread reduction in the use of a controversial gasoline additive once touted as key to reducing air pollution from automobiles.

The additive, MTBE, is used in reformulated gasoline required by the Environmental Protection Agency in all or parts of 16 states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania. That accounts for about a third of the gasoline sold in the country.

Federal research shows that the compound causes tumors in rats and may do so in humans. A University of California study showed that the additive has affected at least 10,000 groundwater sites throughout that state.

It has also been found in groundwater in various other urban locations, including southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The advisory panel, comprising diverse interests from environmentalists to oil-industry executives, found that while reformulated gasoline has contributed to significant air-quality improvements, MTBE poses a growing threat to drinking water, according to a draft summary of the findings obtained by the Associated Press.

The panel found that MTBE molecules travel unusually fast through soil and into groundwater once gasoline gets into the environment. That can happen through leaks in underground tanks or spills while refueling motor vehicles, boats and lawnmowers.

The report, requested by the EPA last year, is to be released today.

Anticipating the findings, EPA Administrator Carol Browner said yesterday that the EPA "must begin to significantly reduce the use of MTBE in gasoline as quickly as possible without sacrificing the gains we've made in achieving cleaner air."

Browner, whose agency in the past has defended the use of MTBE despite complaints from a number of states, said she would ask Congress to make a change in the Clean Air Act "that maintains air-quality gains and allows for the reduction of MTBE" in reformulated gasoline.

Congress in 1990 required that gasoline sold in areas with severe air pollution contain a higher amount of oxygen. Oil companies responded by using MTBE, methyl tertiary-butyl ether, a methanol-based additive.

While other additives such as ethanol also could be used, MTBE has been by far the most widely used additive.

In addition to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, reformulated gasoline is required to be sold in all or part of California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. Arizona also uses the fuel because its supplies come primarily from California refineries.

The panel concluded that reformulated gasoline has provided "substantial reductions" in toxic emissions from automobiles. It urged that those reductions be maintained by requiring refiners to produce cleaner-burning gasoline - with lower toxic emissions - using other additives and refining processes.

Recently California announced that it would ban MTBE, and Maine state officials pulled out of the reformulated-gasoline program because of concern about the additive.

People in New Jersey and elsewhere have also complained that the fumes of the odiferous oxygenated fuel have caused respiratory and other ailments.

The advisory panel, formally called the Blue Ribbon Panel on Oxygenates and Gasoline, confirmed many of the concerns raised about the additive but concluded there was no evidence as yet of a public health threat.

According to a report summary, the panel found trace levels of MTBE in 5 to 10 percent of the drinking water in areas where reformulated gasoline is sold. While those levels pose no health concerns, the panel felt they were a strong enough signal that widespread use of MTBE could pose a future threat to the drinking-water supply.

"We're not saying there's a public health threat now," Daniel Greenbaum, president of the Boston-based Health Effects Institute and chairman of the advisory panel, said in an interview. "We're trying to prevent what has become a low-level, widespread problem from becoming a larger and worse problem."

Greenbaum said the panel does not call for the outright banning of MTBE, but rather calls for its use to be significantly curtailed.

He said the report also emphasizes that alternatives to MTBE should be more widely brought into use as additives to gasoline to ensure that the air-quality gains made under the program are not eroded.

The panel also urges a broader public educational campaign on the potential environmental harm posed by gasoline when it leaks into groundwater from storage tanks or while in use. Jason Grumet, executive director of the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, said that the Northeast governors had pressed for federal action to curtail the use of MTBE, arguing that other gasoline formulas can achieve the needed air-pollution reductions. Grumet's group represents air-pollution-control officials in the Northeast states.

"There are other ways to get there," he said in an interview. "The question is, how much is it going to cost?"

There is some fear that the new formulas will result in higher toxic emissions from gasoline, Grumet said.

As for lessons from the MTBE controversy, Grumet said, one is clear: "We better be pretty careful where we're leaping before we make profound changes in the nation's fuel supply again."