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UConn Findings Show Benefit of Banning MTBE From Gasoline
Released: June 30, 2005

Release #05050
Contact:
Gary Robbins
(860) 486-2448 (office)
(860) 690-4548 (cell)

Beth Krane (
860) 486-4656
(UConn Media Relations)
beth.krane@uconn.edu

STORRS, Conn.— As U.S. lawmakers debate sweeping reforms to the nation’s energy policy this summer and once again grapple with how to handle pollution from the gasoline additive MTBE, new University of Connecticut findings suggest the billions of dollars needed to clean up contaminated sites nationwide may be wasted unless more states ban MTBE.

University of Connecticut Professor Gary Robbins, who has studied gasoline contamination of groundwater for nearly 20 years, has determined that MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) continued to re-contaminate groundwater through vapor releases for years following the successful, 1995 clean-up of a liquid gasoline spill at his study site on campus.

After Connecticut banned MTBE from gasoline sold in the state in January 2004, however, Robbins observed the presence of the contaminant plummet from roughly 1,200 parts per billion to nearly undetectable levels. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s safe range for MTBE is 20 to 40 parts per billion.

“This is the first study, to my knowledge, that shows the tremendous benefit of banning MTBE in the state,” Robbins said of the groundwater analysis he conducted from January 2004 through spring 2005. “The good news is that, unlike the pollution from liquid MTBE leaks, the pollution from MTBE vapors seems to just dissipate over time once you remove the source.

“The bad news is that unless more states follow Connecticut’s lead and ban MTBE, companies could spend all that money and clean up all the sites of past spills and you could have re-contamination.”

Estimates for cleaning up sites contaminated by MTBE nationwide range from industry figures of roughly $8 billion to environmentalists’ figures of $25 billion to $29 billion.

Robbins also points to a 2002 California study that showed nearly 60 percent of tested gas stations in the state experienced subsurface gasoline vapor releases, despite industry measures to prevent leaks including the use of double-lined storage tanks and pipes. That study, however, did not look specifically at the presence of MTBE, he said.

In 2003, a debate in the U.S. Congress over whether to grant MTBE manufacturers protection from lawsuits derailed efforts to overhaul the nation’s energy policy. This year, the U.S. House version of the energy bill includes liability protection but the Senate version, which passed with 85-12 Tuesday, does not.

Regardless of the fate of this year’s energy bill, Robbins says his findings show the need for more states to ban MTBE or to address subsurface gasoline vapor releases.

A number of states, including Connecticut, New York and California, have passed MTBE bans in recent years but the majority of states still allow it.

Robbins conducted his study at the University of Connecticut Motor Pool, a site contaminated by a gasoline spill in 1987 and cleaned by the state in 1995, from January 2004 to March of 2005. His research was funded by a grant from the Connecticut Institute of Water Resources at the University of Connecticut.

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