New research questions need for MTBE ban

Earlier assumptions that increased use of methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) would lead to widespread contamination of water supplies, are now being questioned, following the publication of new data.

According to a new report, Water Quality Impacts of MTBE: An Update Since the Release of the UC Report, by the environmental engineering company, Malcolm Pirnie, the key assumptions used by researchers in 1998 at the University of California, were that the frequency of MTBE detections found in public water supply systems during 1997 and 1998 could be extrapolated to 2012; that MTBE in groundwater would not biodegrade over time; that remediation technologies were unavailable to clean up existing MTBE plumes; and that MTBE contamination of surface waters would continue, due to motorboat use.

The latest study, commissioned by the Methanol Institute, the trade association for the methanol industry, for whom the production of MTBE is the single largest market, suggests that the rate of contamination would not increase as rapidly and widely as originally thought. The report points out that in 1998, the number of MTBE detections in drinking water sources was increasing fairly rapidly, suggesting that between 60 and 340 drinking water wells would become contaminated in the future, in addition to the 35 wells that had already been impacted. Since that time, as more wells have been tested, the percentage of newly contaminated wells has decreased. Based on current detection rates, only 16 new wells are projected to be impacted compared to the UC estimate of 60 to 340 wells.

The methanol industry is now awaiting comments from the Californian state government, which introduced a ban on methanol on the basis of the UC research findings. Greg Dolan at the Methanol Institute told edie that the findings of the latest report have been presented to both the Californian environmental protection agency and the state water resource control board.

John Lynn, president and CEO of the Methanol Institute, said in a statement that a lot has happened since 1998 “to dramatically reduce the threat of MTBE contamination of California’s water supplies. The state intended to act prudently in 1998”. “Now that we know the water quality impacts of MTBE are manageable, it would be imprudent to ask Californians to pay an extra $1 billion at the pump to switch to ethanol,” he said.

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