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East Fishkill Looks for MTBE Culprit

By Dan Shapley
Originally published in the Poughkeepsie Journal

MTBE has been called the perfect water pollutant.

Because the suspected carcinogen is readily water-soluble and moves quickly through soil, a small spill can contaminate a large area – and its source can remain a mystery.

Just ask the residents on Schlueter Drive in East Fishkill.  Twice the state Department of Environmental Conservation investigators thought they had pin-pointed the source of contamination in buried heating fuel tanks and twice the evidence proved otherwise. The DEC has since widened its investigation.

But residents on the rural Hopewell Junction road have been critical of the DEC’s investigation.  They questions whether it’s possible for the source to be a heating oil tank, and they have enlisted the help of state and local officials in an effort to clean up their underground water supplies.  State Assemblyman Patrick Manning, R-East Fishkill, has introduced legislation and met with the DEC to get it to act more quickly.

Wells Positive for MTBE

Wells in the neighborhood have tested at varying levels.  To date, 17 wells have been tested, and four have tested consistently above 10 parts per billion for MTBE, a suspected carcinogen. 

The state’s guideline dictates that water is safe for drinking if it contains up to 50 ppb, but the DEC installs filters on wells that test above 10 ppb – in anticipation of impending state legislation that would make that the new benchmark.

Contamination problem such as those found on Schlueter Drive have become more common since the early 1990s, when methyl tertiary-butyl, ether or MTBE became a significant component in gasoline.

Federal environmental regulations mandated that gasoline manufacturers add MTBE, or other additives to fuel to reduce carbon monoxide in metropolitan areas including the Hudson Valley.

In the years since, reports of MTBE contamination have grown more common, from coast to coast.

Though MTBE is a component of gasoline and not home heating oil, DEC spokeswoman Ellen Stoutenburgh said there is reason to believe the source of the contamination on Schlueter Drive is a buried fuel oil tank.
Stoutenburgh said several past MTBE spills the DEC has investigated were traced to such sources and the presence of other fuel oil constituents – xylene, tri-methyl benzene and napthaline – in some Schlueter Drive wells makes a buried heating oil tank a likely such source.

The DEC thought it had found the source in February when investigators observed a vent pipe from a supposed buried tank in the back yard of Donald and Tammy Downes.  The DEC informed the Downses that they were responsible for the spill in a registered letter.  But the agency later agreed that the vent pipe was part of a septic system – not a fuel oil tank.
 
The DEC installed a filter at the home.

On March 31, Kenneth McLeod received a similar letter, saying that a leaking tank in his backyard was the source of the spill and that he was responsible for the cost of the cleanup – including filters that can cost $2,500 for all affected wells.

But further investigation showed that his tank wasn’t leaking.  He, too, received a filter.

Irked that he had been wrongfully accused, the retired police detective started his own investigation.  He said he discovered there were two known contamination sites within a half mile of his neighborhood and that MTBE isn’t typically found in home heating fuel.

“It seemed they were ignoring what seemed to be obvious sites and focusing on home oil tanks” McLeod said.  “That’s not the way you do an investigation – to eliminate suspects out of hand.”

Ned Sullivan, the executive director of Scenic Hudson, was the environmental commissioner for the state of Maine, where he investigated MTBE contamination sites.  He said there were no cases in Maine in which buried heating fuel tanks caused contamination.

“It, (MTBE) certainly isn’t a mandatory constituent of home heating oil and I’m not aware that is added to home heating oil,” Sullivan said.  “But I wouldn’t rule out that some heating oil has it in it.”

Stoutenburgh said small amounts of MTBE containing gasoline can become mixed with heating fuel if tankers that carry fuel have not bee cleaned thoroughly between shipments.

Small Spill a Culprit

Given the relatively low levels of contamination on Schlueter Drive, she said that source of contamination remains a possibility.

While a home heating fuel tank is an unlikely suspect, Sullivan said, the nature of MTBE makes even small spills potentially hazardous.  He noted a Maine case in which about five gallons of gasoline spilled at a car accident contaminated the drinking water of about 12 residences.

“We found that casual disposal of gasoline was one of the causes of contamination,” he said.  “Historically, it was thought that most MTBE contamination was the result of catastrophic spills and leaking underground storage tanks.”

Stoutenburgh said: “It doesn’t take much.  It could be as small an event as someone emptying their lawn mower onto the grass.”

But residents think the DEC should be looking at two other sites.

The DEC had originally said those sites – a former gasoline station and an IBM site – were unlikely sources of the Schlueter Drive contamination because they are a lower elevations in respect to the neighborhood and too far away.   But since its first two suspects have been vindicated. The DC is now considering sources in a half-mile radius.

“We’re still at the information-gathering stage, so we’re trying to get a snapshot of what the situation is,” Stoutenburgh said.  “We’re not at this point able to identify a source of contamination, so that means we have to look more broadly.”

After meeting with Manning, the DEC agreed to utilize its hydro geologists and attempt to determine the extent of the contamination, according to Bill Connors, a Manning spokesman.

Though aquifers do generally follow the contour of the landscape, hydro geologist John Conrad said several factors could make lower elevation sites potential sources.

“What’s more important than the elevation of the house is the intake of each well.  If the well penetrates deeper, it’s very possible that those wells could be down-gradient of those spills.”  Said Conrad, whose company Conrad Geoscience Corp., has cleaned up MTBE contamination sites in the region.

Also, Conrad said, well pumps can draw the flow of an aquifer toward them, attracting contaminants.  That’s particularly important to note with MTBE spills, he said, because MTBE is much more soluble in water than other gasoline compounds.

“That’s another reason to suspect it farther from its source.  It can travel farther and faster,” he said.

Though residents say many homes remain untested, the DEC said it has begun regular testing of some residences to monitor any changes in the levels of contaminants.

“The monitoring we’re doing at  Schlueter is done on a very frequent basis because of the fact that the people’s drinking water is impacted,” Stoutenburgh said.  “We’re looking at whether sampling needs to be done on a broader basis.”

That’s what residents want, and they believe the DEC has not been active enough, in either investigating their problems or keeping them informed of testing results.

As the investigation continues, residents have no recourse but to buy bottled water and wonder.  Those whose wells test positive consistently receive filters, but test results have been erratic.  For instance, McLeod’s readings have ranged from 0 ppg to 18, while his neighbor Rudy Saporite’s readings did the opposite.  Though Saporite’s most recent test was negative for MTBE contamination  he doesn’t trust the results.

“I am not confident,” he said.  “I still do not drink the water; It’s bad enough I’m not sure what I’m doing when I shower, but I’m sure not going to drink or cook with it.”

AT A GLANCE

MTBE

The federal Clean Air Act of 1990 requires that an oxygenator, such as ethanol or methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE), be added to gasoline in some metropolitan areas, including the Hudson valley.  Oxygenators increase the oxygen content in gasoline, which helps cars produce less carbon monoxide.  Carbon monoxide is one of the key chemicals in the creation of air pollution.

MTBE is a suspected carcinogen.  It is highly soluble in water and doesn’t adhere to soil, so if gasoline containing he agent is spilled, the MTBE can quickly make its way into a water supply.  Once there, MTBE doesn’t naturally degrade as quickly as other hazardous components of gasoline, such as benzene and toluene.