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