Test finds gas additive in ground water

By WARREN CORNWALL

Herald Writer

LYNNWOOD — A gasoline additive that has polluted drinking water around the country turned up in groundwater beneath a Lynnwood gas station, a new state report shows.

The Arco station at the corner of 196th Street SW and Highway 99 is one of 30 sites around the state where the chemical methyl tertiary-butyl ether, or MTBE, was found.

There is no sign the chemical in Lynnwood or elsewhere has turned up in drinking water, state officials say. But its widespread appearance startled state health and environmental officials and raised the possibility of future drinking water contamination, according to the report.

"We did find pretty frequent detections of MTBE, and that’s a concern to me," said Barry Rogowski, manager of the state Department of Ecology program monitoring buried storage tanks, a common source of the chemical.

The Lynnwood site raises few fears because it’s far from any drinking water wells, Rogowski said. City residents get their water sent through pipes from Everett, and there are no wells within a mile of the Arco site.

"I would not be concerned about our water here," said Bill Vlcek, Lynnwood’s public works director.

Other parts of the country have not been as fortunate. The chemical, once used to reduce smog, has become a pollution headache, particularly in California.

In the 1990s, MTBE was the additive of choice in California to make cleaner burning gasoline. Elsewhere, including Washington, it was used to boost octane levels in gas.

But MTBE also dissolves in water and flows quickly through soil, making it a prime candidate for pollution from leaking fuel tanks or oil spills. In very small amounts, it can make water smell like turpentine, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has tentatively labeled it as a possible cause of cancer in humans.

Towns around the country have closed drinking water wells contaminated with the substance. Santa Monica, Calif., has closed the wells supplying half its water. In response to the problem, the EPA earlier this year ordered a phase-out of the chemical in gasoline.

The new Washington study found MTBE at nearly half of the 62 contaminated test sites. Almost 25 percent of the sites had the chemical in ground water at levels above the cleanup threshold proposed by the state Department of Ecology, the Lynnwood site among them. Other gasoline pollution made exact measurements difficult in Lynnwood, but there was less than 100 parts per billion of MTBE. The EPA’s advisory threshold for drinking water is 20 to 40 parts per billion.

The results suggest as many as 800 sites around the state may be contaminated with MTBE, according to the report. Lynnwood was the only Snohomish County site tested.

Western Washington’s five refineries, which supply nearly all of the region’s fuel, no longer mix MTBE into gasoline, said Dan Riley, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, a trade organization for major oil companies.

That, combined with the lower use of MTBE here, means Washington should have fewer troubles, he said.

"We don’t have a California-type problem here," he said.

Still, environmental regulators plan to begin requiring testing for MTBE at pollution cleanup sites next year, Rogowski said. The state also plans to set cleanup levels at 20 parts per billion in ground water and 100 parts per billion in soil.

The Ecology Department is also working with the state Department of Health to figure out "where we might have some potential drinking water impacts," Rogowski said.

In Lynnwood, landowners have been working to clean up the site since fuel contamination from a leaking underground tank was first detected in 1990. Rogowski did not know how far the cleanup had progressed, or when it was supposed to be finished.

Efforts to reach the company responsible for the cleanup were unsuccessful.

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