This year marks two anniversaries for a chemical that was designed to protect the air but that wound up fouling water.
It’s the gasoline additive MTBE, or methyl tertiary-butyl ether. The story of this chemical compound is a story of environmental awareness, noble intentions, error, law, responsibility and money.
The compound was first put into gasoline in the 1970s as leaded gas was being phased out.
The goal was to reduce smog-producing exhausts from cars and trucks. Air qualities improved, and refiners rushed to produce the stuff. Thirty years ago Chemical Week magazine reported that MTBE was the fastest-growing chemical in the world. That’s the first anniversary.
The second anniversary dates to a bare five years later — 1995 — when a chemist for Santa Monica, California noticed an unexpected item in a city water quality report: MTBE had leaked into the local water supply.
Soon enough, the colorless turpentine-smelling compound was turning up in water reports across the land. Then it began appearing in court filings and eventual court judgments and settlements that directed oil companies, gas stations, pipeline companies and others to hand over billions of dollars to help states and cities clean up after the toxic contaminant and build new water supply projects.
The payouts from these court judgments and settlements continue, long after MTBE was generally phased out and replaced by ethanol, a substance derived from corn. Just last summer, for example, the state of New Jersey announced $14.8 million in new settlements with MTBE polluters.
The awards have gone mostly to build new water supply systems, but in some cases the money’s gone into projects unrelated to MTBE. In New Hampshire, for example, three percent of a $236 million court judgment against Exxon-Mobil goes to protecting land around water supplies.
The whole MTBE experience has been contentious, certainly concerning culpability. Oil companies insisted that it wasn’t their fault because all they were doing was making a government-blessed motor fuel. The source of problem, they said with little success, was with the makers and users of underground storage tanks that leaked.
An extensive study of the matter can be found in this 2008 publication by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 led to the use of other oxygenates in gasoline, principally ethanol, but not everybody’s happy with that, either.
Ethanol comes from corn. Critics say that its use in gasoline can cause some air pollution, not to mention harm engines, reduce fuel efficiency and send up food prices. So, MTBE has had a ripple effect.
The MTBE experience has also had an echo. In recent years the very state governments that sued the makers and providers of MTBE-treated gasoline are now going after the makers and users of another man-made substance that initially had wondrous use but wound up causing problems in water.
It’s a class of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – PFAs or PFOAs for short. They’re behind such consumer conveniences as non-stick cookware. But the stuff has been found to be toxic and hazardous to human health. and it’s darn near impossible to get out of water once it’s gotten in. Hence the moniker “Forever Chemical.”
The lesson? We Americans understand the concept of trade-offs. We know that when you allow one thing there’s a chance of an adverse consequence. Sometimes we expect the consequence, sometimes not. Okay. But sometimes the consequence is harm to something precious and essential such as clean water. Proof is in the cases of MTBE and PFOA.