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State water wells contaminated with chemical linked to cancer

October 22, 2001
By: Sarah Molina
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - A chemical linked to cancer is showing up across Missouri.

More than one year after a CBS national report revealed that a gasoline product used in Missouri could cause cancer, state regulations still allow use of the product in the St. Louis area.

The state reports dozens of water wells across the state have become contaminated with the product, and the pollution could spread if measures are not taken soon.

"Failure to act will cost lives," said Sen. Dave Klarich, R-St. Louis County.

The issue is reformulated gasoline, RFG, a fuel with a higher oxygen level that is formulated to reduce the emission of toxic air pollutants and ozone-causing compounds by decreasing the amounts of these chemicals blended with the oil.

Two kinds of oxygenates are routinely used in RFG: ethanol, which is made from corn, and Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether, MTBE, which is added mainly to reduce engine shocks.

About 40 percent of the reformulated gasoline in the St. Louis area is made from ethanol. The other 60 percent is comprised from MTBE which is a major cause for opposition to the RFG program because of its potential for water pollution.

Thirty-eight wells at 23 sites in the St. Louis area and southwest Missouri have been contaminated by MTBE as of June 2001. It enters the water through gasoline spills or emissions from cars or motorboats.

The RFG program was created by the federal Clean Air Act of 1990 and was only intended for the nine U.S. cities with the worst smog: Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, Houston, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City.

Although no Missouri metropolitan is required by federal law to participate in the RFG program, Gov. Mel Carnahan added the St. Louis region to the program as part of the state's plan to avoid federal sanctions for poor air quality in the St. Louis area.

Without a plan, the area faced the potential loss of federal funds for highways and other projects.

Before his death, Carnahan rejected requests to ban MTBE. The governor said he wanted the federal government to assure the St. Louis area would not suffer sanctions before imposing any such ban.

Since 1999, gas stations in Franklin, Jefferson, St. Charles and St. Louis counties and the city of St. Louis have been required to use RFG at the pumps rather than regular gasoline used in the rest of the state.

Data from the Air Pollution Control Center show that since the city initiated the program, air quality in St. Louis has improved.

However, officials are debating the source of this decrease in air pollution and questioning the necessity of the RFG program.

"It is definitely beneficial for air quality," said Peter Good, an environmental engineer at the state Air Pollution Control Center.

The Missouri Corn Growers Association is one group that supported Carnahan on the implementation of the RFG program.

"We want to work to build new markets for our product," said Fred Stemme, a representative of the association. "It helps the profitability of corn growers."

Despite support of the program, it is still unfounded whether the improvement in air quality is even due to RFG.

Those officials who oppose the program say it could be the result of other environmental improvement measures such as industrial controls and the vehicle emission inspection program.

For example, in the St. Louis area, an auto must pass an exhaust-emission test for license plate renewal.

Legislators' main concern, however, stems from the environmental costs of forfeiting clean water for a slight increase in air quality.

Sen. Anita Yeckel, R-St. Louis County, was a member of the committee opposing the implementation of the law in 1999. Yeckel says air quality in St. Louis was not bad to begin with and the law is not a "major fix" because there are other factors besides burning fuel that contribute to air pollution. Yeckel's main opposition to the program, however, is the MTBE component in the reformulated gasoline.

Klarich has been a major opponent to the RFG program since 1994 due to its MTBE component.

"There is no question that it will not help achieve compliance (with air pollution standards)," he said.

Additional opposition to the program comes from legislators who say the non-mandatory use of RFG causes an unnecessary increase in gas prices.

According to Good, because RFG is a special blend of gasoline, there may be a penny or two per gallon difference, but it is hard to tell if that is a result of reformulated gasoline or the natural laws of producer supply and consumer demand.

Several Missouri legislatures have attempted to outlaw the use of MTBE. Rep. Peter Myers, R-Sikeston, proposed a bill that was turned down which would have replaced MTBE in gasoline with ethanol. He says he plans to propose another bill sometime in December.

MTBE has also been placed on EPA's list of Unregulated Contaminants and is being considered for regulation in the future. According to the Missouri Natural Resources Department, outlawing its use, however, would cause gasoline shortages and would mean higher prices at the pumps.

MTBE has a strong turpentine-like odor and an unpleasant taste. Any Missouri resident suspecting MTBE contamination in their drinking water is urged to contact the Missouri Health Department - Section for Environmental Public Health at 1-800-392-7245 for a routine water sampling.