Volume 12, Issue 39 ~ September 23-29, 2004
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MTBE: An Alphabet Soup of Trouble

If you draw water from your well, like many Marylanders do, and you’ve lived anywhere near a filling station, then you need to pay attention.

Even if you don’t drink from a well, you ought to be concerned about how Maryland deals with a perplexing and newly emerged public health threat from a nasty gasoline additive.

MTBE stands for methyl tertiary butyl ether, and it springs from a good idea gone bad. The federal government helped to birth MTBE in deciding more than a decade ago that we need to reformulate cleaner gas to fight smog problems.

Except that cleaner in the air meant dirtier in the earth. Too bad the government did not have enough sense to understand that MTBE is reeking, leaking cancer-causing stuff that would spread stealthily through the environment and into hundreds of Maryland wells.

Now states and localities are dealing with a cleanup of breathtaking scope. It’s not very reassuring to know that the big MTBE debate in Washington has been whether to give blanket immunity from lawsuits to the Texas oil companies that produce the bulk of the chemical. Wiser heads in Congress prevailed against this corrupt idea, but you only need to look as far as the White House to see how Texas oil men often prevail.

The new state regulations to deal with Maryland’s messes, present and future, were bound to rile. Gas dealers and station owners are griping aplenty about proposed rules that would require them to replace underground fuel pipes at existing stations.

Our response is this: Let’s ban MTBE altogether, and we won’t have to redo so much plumbing.

About 20 states — from coast to coast — have banned MTBE or are in the process of phasing it out. No matter what you do to contain it, it always escapes in vapors, like the breath of Dracula. Even double-walled fuel tanks can’t hold this poison, studies show.

Sure, the options aren’t appealing. Another so-called oxygenate is ethanol, a fairly inefficient fuel additive from corn. Too bad this alternative turns into a handout for farmers in a system of vast government subsidies that principally benefits fat-cat campaign contributors like Archer Daniels Midland back in the corn kingdom of Illinois.

Besides poison, MTBE is spreading distrust in government. We don’t like to see protections that fail because it becomes harder to muster the political will to fix the next problem.
With MTBE, the surest course is just to impose a ban altogether rather than compound a problem that hurts both our health and our wallets.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.