Analysis: Reformulated Gas: EPA Didn’t Do its Homework

Published March 1, 1999

In taking the Hippocratic oath, fledgling physicians solemnly pledge they will, “First, do no harm.” That the oath has survived over the centuries is a clear sign that those who oversee the medical profession’s code of conduct recognize the unique responsibility doctors have to protect the health of people in their care.

Unfortunately, federal regulatory agencies, not even those purporting to address public health matters, have no equivalent to the Hippocratic oath. While they may have ethical codes of conduct, experience shows that these are sometimes subordinated to political considerations. When confronted with scientific uncertainties, regulatory agencies often are inclined to do whatever serves their narrow bureaucratic interests. Among those interests, none is more important than the expansion of power.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ill-fated reformulated gasoline program is a case in point. In concocting a grandiose scheme to reduce air pollution, Administrator Carol Browner’s agency has managed to badly frighten the daylights out of people who want nothing more than a drink of water. The needless anguish EPA has caused revolves around the gasoline additive MTBE.

Once a relatively obscure chemical compound, MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) is now at the center of a growing controversy over drinking water contamination in states as far apart as New York and California. Touted by EPA as an effective weapon in the war against air pollution, MTBE has been leaking from underground storage tanks and pipelines, quickly making its way into groundwater in cities and towns across the nation. Scientists, regulators, public officials, and people who live in affected communities are scrambling to determine whether EPA’s efforts to address one environmental problem have inadvertently led to another.

MTBE Contaminates California Drinking Water

A study by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory reported in 1997 that MTBE has contaminated groundwater at more than 10,000 sites in California. And these are not just trace quantities of the chemical that are being measured. According to the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Board, test wells at one northern California service station recorded levels of MTBE reaching a whopping 130,000 parts per billion. By way of comparison, EPA has a non-binding advisory on MTBE in drinking water of 20 to 40 parts per billion.

Do the levels of MTBE measured in drinking water pose a risk to public health? No one knows . . . because EPA never bothered to find out.

The controversy over the health effects of MTBE are rooted in the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, which instructed EPA to develop a reformulated gasoline program to help improve air quality in the nation’s most polluted cities. EPA unveiled its reformulated gas program in early 1993 and promptly mandated the use of what it touted as cleaner-burning oxygenated fuels in 39 metropolitan areas. Other jurisdictions could voluntarily participate in the program. The goal of the reformulated gas initiative was to reduce emissions of carbon monoxide from cars and trucks.

In accordance with EPA’s new policy, oil companies were required to supply the targeted metropolitan areas with oxygenated fuels. While some oil refiners chose grain-based ethanol, most decided to use MTBE. When added to standard gasoline, MTBE raises its oxygen content, which in turn reduces the production and emission of carbon monoxide, particularly in older vehicles.

What Impact on Health?

Whatever MTBE’s promise may have been, the fuel additive quickly became controversial. In February 1995, EPA dispatched Margo Oge, director of the agency’s Office of Mobile Sources, to answer questions from angry Milwaukee residents complaining of headaches, dizziness, nausea, rashes, and eye irritation–all said to result from exposure to MTBE fumes at the gas pump. Similar complaints were voiced in Alaska, Kentucky, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Alaska openly defied EPA and banned the sale of MTBE in the state. Though Oge and other agency officials seemed mystified by the complaints, it soon was revealed that EPA’s own scientists had warned of just such symptoms in a 1993 report on potential health risks of MTBE.

Things took a decided turn for the worse in 1996 when it was found that MTBE had leaked from gas stations and pipelines into the water supply of Santa Monica, California. Before long, water throughout central and northern regions of the state was contaminated by the chemical. What further unnerved residents of California is a special characteristic of MTBE. Unlike standard gasoline, which, when spilled or leaked, does not spread far and breaks down naturally over time, MTBE is highly soluble in both gasoline and water. Once it reaches groundwater it spreads rapidly.

Alerted by the public unrest, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy in 1997 issued a report on MTBE, concluding, “There is sufficient evidence to indicate that MTBE is an animal carcinogen and to regard MTBE as having a human hazard potential.”

The findings heightened concerns in troubled California. With radio talk show hosts and newspaper editorial pages demanding action, the state legislature authorized scientists at the University of California to conduct a study of possible links between MTBE-contaminated drinking water and cancer in humans. A draft of the study has been completed and turned over to the Centers for Disease Control and U.S. Geological Survey for review. Hearings on the report will be held throughout California early this year.

Why the Delay?

Why didn’t EPA conduct a thorough scientific evaluation of the health effects of oxygenated fuels–not just MTBE, but also ethanol and methanol–before millions of people were exposed to them? Such research may well have concluded that MTBE, even if it makes its way into aquifers, poses no serious risk to public health. MTBE, like any other substance, should receive an unbiased evaluation. Yet almost six years after it triumphantly announced its reformulated gasoline program, EPA has not developed a comprehensive plan to test the oxygenated fuels, much less set safety standards for them.

Many stakeholder groups are nervously living with uncertainty due to EPA’s negligence. Oil companies don’t know if the $7 billion they spent converting their refineries to make the new fuel will ever be recouped. They also don’t know the extent of their liability if the MTBE issue leads to a never-ending series of lawsuits. People living near MTBE-contaminated aquifers don’t know whether the water they drink and bathe in is safe. Fruit and vegetable growers don’t know whether the water they use for their crops will be viewed by the public as a hazardous substance. The potential for public hysteria of the kind that broke out during the Alar hoax of 1989, from which U.S. apple growers have never fully recovered, cannot be ignored.

Regrettably, the mess EPA has made out of its reformulated gasoline program is no isolated incident. Things have gotten so bad at EPA that its own scientists are beginning to speak out. “Environmental actions based on poor science waste the nation’s resources that could be spent effectively protecting public health and the environment,” notes EPA microbiologist David Lewis. “In the end, EPA’s scientifically unsound regulations will only exacerbate the very problems they aim to solve and create new problems for future generations.”

Dr. Bonner Cohen is a visiting fellow with the Lexington Institute and editor of EPA Watch.