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Missouri Lawmakers Still Debating Ban on Cancer-Causing Chemical

March 11, 2002
By: Jon Ariztimuno
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB 1750

JEFFERSON CITY - Three years after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended phasing out use of a potential cancer-causing chemical in gasoline, Missouri lawmakers still are debating what to do about it.

The chemical is methyl tertiary butyl ether -- or MTBE. It is added to gasoline sold in the St. Louis area as part of the state's plan submitted to the EPA to address air pollution problems in the St. Louis. The chemical helps reduce carbon monoxide in gasoline combustion.

But, according to the National Institutes of Health, the chemical also has been linked to a number of health problems in animals including cancer and kidney dysfunction.

It was about the time MTBE use began in Missouri that national stories emerged of widespread groundwater pollution to MTBE.

Missouri lawmakers have debated the issue the last few years without resolution. Legislation to phase out the additive is pending before the House Environment and Committee.

Both ethanol, produced from corn, and MTBE have been for years to "oxygenate" or oxidize gasoline -- to make it burn more cleanly.

According to the EPA, "MTBE has been used in conventional gasoline to boost the octane since the 1970s."

Last year, the Missouri Natural Resources Department (MoDNR) reported that dozens of water wells across Missouri had been contaminated with the chemical.

According to MoDNR data, a total of 38 drinking water wells, six public and 32 private, have been found contaminated as of June 2001.

The environmental concern about MTBE is that it remains in water and in the ground for extremely long periods of time and does not easily degrade into safer chemicals.

The sponsor of the bill to phase out use of the chemical is Rep. Maurice Lawson, D-St. Joseph. He also is the chairman for the House Environment and Energy Committee.

"Once the MTBE gets in the system, you can't ever use that drinking water, you can't separate it," he said.

Besides the environmental concern, Lawson also points to an agricultural issue -- that the replacement for MTBE, ethanol, is produced from corn grown by Missouri farmers.

"This is a great bill for the environment, for rural economic development and for our family farms," he said.

The most conflictive point argued by the committee was the date when the new regulation would be met by the oil industry.

Lawson has referred the bill to a subcommittee to find a reasonable date for the oil companies.

"We can't force it in unless they are ready. I want all parties to feel comfortable with that," Lawson said.

Some Missouri oil companies have already completed the needed processing transformations to oxygenate gasoline with ethanol, said Diane Miller, executive director of the Missouri Oil Council.

According to Miller, Missouri oil companies need a reasonable date to comply with the requirements of the bill.

"We need an implementation date that is far enough out that all the companies could come into compliance," she said.

Even though some states are moving forward to legislate on MTBE, Miller showed interest to have national regulation.

"We would prefer a federal solution to this issue," she said.

Rep. John E. Griesheimer, R-Washington, said that the bill will easily be passed in the house.

"This will actually put a lot of residents at ease that the legislature does care about it, that we are concerned, and that we are trying to do something to prevent further contamination of ground water in the state," he said.

The MTBE issue has raised concerns from a number of states, who have banded together under as the Governor's Ethanol Coalition, chaired by Gov. Bob Holden.

The coalition consists of 27 governors.

On Monday, Holden issued a release praising a compromise before the U.S. Senate to eventually ban MTBE and triple ethanol use over the next 10 years.

"Ethanol reduces our dependence on foreign oil, decreases air pollution and builds our rural economiesm," Holden said.