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May 2, 2005
By Quinn, William T.
Environmentalists and farmers part company over banning a possible carcinogen
Legislators in Trenton were hit with a barrage of conflicting views last week on whether New Jersey should join the 19 states that have already banned the use of MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) as a gasoline additive.
Refiners started adding MTBE to gasoline sold in New Jersey and other states with high levels of air pollution in the 1990s to help oxygenate the fuel so it would burn more efficiently and reduce tailpipe emissions.
But as the substance has been detected seeping into water systems around the country, concerns that it may be a carcinogen have prompted states that include New York and Connecticut to ban its use in fuels sold there.
Environmental groups mostly oppose banning MTBE in New Jersey, arguing that removing it from gasoline will increase air pollution. The oil industry has been neutral while the New Jersey Farm Bureau has been strongly supportive. Farmers hope that banning the substance would cause gasoline refiners to turn to ethanol as a substitute, creating new demand for corn crops.
Despite the lack of consensus, state Senator Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), the sponsor of the bill (S-2018) to ban MTBE in gasoline sold in New Jersey by 2008, remains optimistic about moving it forward this year. Sweeney and co-sponsor Henry McNamara (R-Bergen) will need one more senator to join them to move the bill out of the five-member Senate Environment Committee.
"I don't think there is any argument that MTBE does pollute our water," says Sweeney. " New Jersey has 430 contamination hits [in wells]. It's a serious issue; it's not going away."
But committee chair Robert Smith (D-Middlesex) isn't so sure the bill will advance. "My belief is it's going to be difficult. It's not clear cut," Smith says.
Meanwhile, controversy roiled Washington last week over a provision in the energy bill the House passed last month that would give MTBE makers immunity from liability suits that claim they sell an unsafe and defective product.
The immunity provision is strongly backed by House Majority Leader Tom Delay of Texas, the home of most MTBE producers. But it is strongly opposed by environmental groups and many water companies. If MTBE makers are left off the hook, water firms fear they will have to shoulder more of the cost of closing down wells or adding expensive treatment equipment to deal with MTBE contamination in ground water.
According to the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., MTBE has already been detected in water systems serving 4.7 million New Jersey residents. In addition, the environmental group says MTBE has been found in 1,861 water systems serving 45 million people in 29 states. Most experts believe it has gotten into ground water from leaking underground gasoline storage tanks.
Health concerns have prompted a wave of lawsuits by water companies, municipalities, and individuals against MTBE producers. Stuart Lieberman of the Princeton law firm of Lieberman & Blecher has brought some of those suits. He supports a ban on MTBE in New Jersey and describes the idea of granting MTBE producers immunity against suits as a "radically bad decision." However, he notes, "There are strong lobbies on all sides of this issue."
"I don't think there is any argument that MTBE does pollute our water."