Your Influence Counts ... Use It! The SPOTLIGHT by Liberty Lobby

Reprinted from, home of The SPOTLIGHT archive

Californians fight dangerous gas additive

  • The gasoline additive MTBE short for methyl tertiary butyl ether, has become a critical issue that has received sparse media attention. Now it is time everyone be told what Californians are learning from one of their state senators and about the quiet controversy in the East as well.
By Tom Valentine

Last summer the California Air Resources Board, which is one of the busiest most lobbied and environmentally buffeted groups of bureaucrats in the world, announced that it was eliminating the winter use of MTBE for most of the state. When the air is colder, MTBE pollution worsens, though it also pollutes in warm weather as well.

On Oct. 3, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the decision over objections by the Oxygenated Fuels Association (OFA), an oil industry puppet.

The OFA claims the deadly pollution problem is a "container problem, not a chemical compound problem. Gasoline needs to be stored in more secure underground tanks." More secure storage cannot solve this health and environmental disaster that is mushrooming with nary a congressional hearing.

The crisis is already at hand. It should have been resolved years ago.

On May 18, 1998, state Sen. Dick Mountjoy (Calif-29), listed the 28 lakes and reservoirs already containing measurable amounts of MTBE, including such famous waterways as Lake Shasta and Lake Tahoe. Mountjoy concluded by pointing out that MTBE damages elastomers in the fuel systems of cars, creating a potential for leaks and fires.

The senator sponsored legislation last spring to begin seriously dealing with the problem, but the powerful oil industry lobby managed to have SB 1926 killed in the Senate Environmental Quality Committee.

What can the California legislature be thinking? One small community has already been nearly demolished by an MTBE leak from a gasoline storage tank.

Joseph D. Gonzalez, an attorney representing the residents of the tiny hamlet of Glenville in the foothills near Bakersfield, Calif., where half the wells were contaminated by MTBE leaking from a gasoline storage tank, summed it up:

"Ten years from now, what are we going to look at in the state when all our ground water's gone and contaminated? As we keep destroying our water, our children will be in deep, deep trouble," he said.

Glenville's tiny community of 200 had MTBE enter the storage tanks of the local gas station sometime after 1990 when oil companies began using it. The "mom & pop" station purchased various brands of gasoline, so the origin of the contamination is virtually impossible to determine. MTBE leaked into the ground water and people began drinking and bathing in contaminated water.

"Glenville is now a ghost town," Gonzalez said. The only coffee shop closed down and property values plummeted. The deteriorated health of the majority of the residents poses a clinician's nightmare and these people are now suing six major oil companies.

According to OFA spokesman Eric Bolton, they should have had a more secure storage tank. He added: "The danger in sacrificing MTBE and thinking you've solved water contamination is this: I guarantee you will see air quality problems creep back into the daily weather forecast in California."

That air-quality assertion, you will now see, is being challenged on the East Coast, even though the major media chooses to see no evil, hear no evil or speak no evil regarding this vital issue.

The SPOTLIGHT's original source for the story about the environmental and health dangers of MTBE came from Dr. Peter M. Joseph, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine Philadelphia.


Following Foseph's work, the oil industry spin doctors went to work. In Trenton, New Jersey, The Trentonian, an op-ed letter debunking MTBE critics, appeared on Sept. 19,1996.

On Nov. 6, a rebuttal from the "Oxybusters" appeared.

Oxybusters is a citizen's group formed to oppose MTBE and the oil industry-backed OFA. Typical of our era of "newsspeak," the wonderful life-giving element oxygen really has nothing to do with the issue.

The headline above Joseph's Oxybusters rebuttal letter read: "Pro MTBE letter full of lies." Key parts of this response were:

... all anecdotal reports from New Jersey, as well as New York city, Connecticut and Philadelphia indicate huge increase in asthma and other diseases since the new fuels were introduced. My own research in Philadelphia show that at least six diseases have become greatly exacerbated: Specifically, asthma up 44 percent, nasal allergy up 48 percent, conjunctivitis up 67 percent, ear infection up 40 percent, sinusitis up 70 percent, and worst of all, trouble breathing up a whopping 100 percent! One school in suburban Philadelphia saw the number of Asthmatic students double exactly one year after the MTBE program began in 1992. I repeat, there are absolutely no scientific or medical studies to refute these results ...

There was more, but his makes the point. The oil industry is being accused of fudging the data and ferociously lobbying the politicians to keep this cash cow alive, no matter what damage to human health.

For example, the OFA argues that MTBE has cut the airborne levels of benzene, a cancer-causing compound, by 50 percent, but research shows that MTBE causes cancer in animals and likely does do in humans as well.

The question is obvious. How can the oil industry get away with this? If even part of what has been pointed out about the potential pollution of MTBE is verified over the stonewalling of agenda-driven science, this appears to be a far larger situation than the cigarette industry mess. Why is the major media so silent? Where are all the television magazine shows?

Incidentally, you inadvertently contributed to this pollution. Yes, your tax dollars -- likely in the hundreds of millions -- were used to research, develop and test this supposed "cleaner burning" additive.

It's time we all put our two cents worth into the mix. Everyone should call, fax or write their representatives and senators to demand public hearings on this issue so the politicians can hear the facts and get the guts to do what is right despite the powerful oil lobby.

To keep up with the breaking news about this growing controversy you may get all kinds of information at either of two Internet websites: and/or