U.S. Water News Online
SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- Santa Monica is the first city in California to be forced to shut down a large part of its drinking-water supply because of contamination by the gasoline additive MTBE -- and may be the first large city in the nation to face such a problem.
Excessive amounts of MTBE in water supplies have forced this city of about 100,000 -- adjacent to Los Angeles and famed for its beaches -- to close three of the five wells in a field that supplies 40 percent of its drinking water.
Now officials say, MTBE contamination may force closing of all wells -- including the fourth and fifth wells -- in the Charnock Well field in nearby Mar Vista.
MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, is manufactured from methanol, a known poison, and used in California as a gasoline additive under clean-air programs.
But MTBE is also drawing continuing criticism for possible adverse health effects. Many of the earlier complaints were based on inhaling fumes from MTBE-laced gasoline or the handling of gasoline, but more recently the complaints have shifted to concerns about water contamination.
In the Santa Monica water supply, MTBE has been detected at concentrations up to 600 parts per billion, resulting in the shutdown of the first three of five water wells. One well, showing only 14 parts per billion of MTBE when first tested, rose earlier this year to 490 parts per billion.
The California Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has established a level for MTBE of 35 parts per billion.
The Santa Monica problem with MTBE has brought new concerns throughout California, causing state officials to order increased monitoring of all water, in addition to monitoring sites near underground gasoline storage tanks.
The increased monitoring in California comes at a time when the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. has warned about the lack of data on MTBE and called for "immediate" monitoring throughout the U.S.
California officials are also watching the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its decision on re-classifying MTBE as a human carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent. It is now listed as a possible human carcinogen but is expected to be upgraded later this year to a "probable" cause of cancer in humans.
Santa Monica officials have said if the problem of MTBE in their drinking water isn't resolved, they may have to abandon all the affected wells. The loss of the wells is projected to cost the city $2 million a year or more.
Santa Monica is already buying more water from the Metropolitan Water District at a cost of an additional $22,000 a week, officials said.
The MTBE contamination of the Santa Monica water supply is blamed on leaking underground gasoline tanks near the well field.
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