Legacy of Contamination Should Fall to Polluters, Not Consumers
The Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) is celebrating the arrival of the MTBE ban deadline on Jan. 1, 2004. MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, has contaminated scores of drinking water sources throughout California. In 1999, Governor Davis ordered the gasoline additive banned as of 2003. This date was later moved to 2004 due to logistical problems experienced by oil companies.
The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has reported that all oil companies are now importing MTBE-free gasoline and all gas stations should be MTBE-free by the January 1 deadline. "This is a big day for all drinking water consumers and water districts throughout California," said ACWA Executive Director Steve Hall. "ACWA has fought long and hard to rid this contaminant from our gas. Unfortunately, in its wake, MTBE has left widespread contamination that will cost billions of dollars to remediate."
Thousands of gallons of drinking water have already been ruined and there is likely more to be discovered. A recent study estimates it could cost $29 billion to cleanup the damage caused by MTBE.
To add insult to injury, some members of Congress are attempting to protect the manufacturers of MTBE from liability as part of the national energy legislation. Although this attempt recently failed, it's expected the same attempt will be made in early 2004.
For much of 2003, ACWA has partnered with a growing coalition of cities, counties, mayors and water organizations opposing the so-called "safe harbor" found in the energy bill, which would leave local ratepayers and their water districts to pay for cleanups and the replacement of water supplies lost due to MTBE.
"Congress should be more concerned with protecting the safety and affordability of drinking water than the pocketbooks of oil companies," Hall said. "If the oil companies aren't held accountable, it will be drinking water consumers who pay to clean up this mess."
"Court documents have shown that the oil companies knew about MTBE's harmful properties and yet chose to use it anyway. For this reason alone, they should be held liable," said Hall. "But it's also clear that EPA was asleep on the job when they approved its use. Perhaps the federal government should also share some responsibility for this failure. The parties that shouldn't pay for this mess are the local water agencies and their customers."
ACWA's 447 public agency members are collectively responsible for more than 90 percent of the water delivered in California for residential and agricultural use.