Not their actions, that's why (3.00 / 11) (#93)
by bigbird on Tue Nov 25, 2003 at 01:17:38 AM EST
they don't want to accept responsibility for the predictable consequences of their actions
I work with groundwater contamination caused by downstream petroleum distribution and dispensing pretty much every day. The producers themselves generally do not cause groundwater contamination, it happens in the distribution chain.
What? You don't believe me? Well, that's because the media doesn't understand the issue, and partly because few people have any understanding of contaminant origin or migration. People like to blame the big corporations, and lawyers like to sue those with "deep pockets", no matter how tenuous the link between the producer and the contamination.
MTBE contamination occurs at the end of a long chain of steps. I'll outline some of the key ones for you below:
I have seen very few bulk plant or service station sites which have NAPL or dissolved phase petroleum hydrocarbon plumes extending more than 50m to 100m from the source. This is supported by most research I have seen. A plume will spread to a certain distance, at which point natural biodegradation processes pretty much keep it in a steady state. It is a related rates problem, and once you remove the source, natural attenuation will eventually get rid of the hydrocarbons.
- Various environmentalist groups clamour for reduced air pollution, and elimination of lead back in the 1970's and early 80's. This is good.
- Government gives them what they ask for. This is also good. Industry has to meet the challenge of providing unleaded fuels which will run in cars designed for leaded gasoline, with reduced emissions and no lead (think antiknock properties, described using the octane rating). Oh yeah, and it should be economical too, lest consumers whine even more at the pumps. Gasoline is insanely cheap, and synthetic additives are not. Thus for anything that needs to be added at concentrations in the percent range, it had better be inexpensive.
- MTBE is a good oxygenate, and readily produced from existing isobutene feedstocks. That means it is cheap. Unlike grain produced ethanol, which is quite expensive, and is of dubious environmental value. Sure, burning gasoline is not great for the environment. But given that around a gallon of diesel fuel is required to grow a gallon of grain-derived ethanol, please explain why ethanol is good for anyone other than the oversubsidized farmers in america's midwest?
- California, being California, decided that if a little MTBE is good for smog reduction, than a lot would be better. Most of the US added 3% MTBE, compared with approximately 11% in California. Guess which state has the worst MTBE problems?
- Producers ramp up MTBE production, consumers notice little or no difference in gasoline price or performance, and everyone drives off happily into the sunset.
- Or not. Gasoline is stored at gas stations in underground storage tanks. They rust, they leak, they get overfilled, and they are sometimes operated by people with a fourth grade education who sign their name with an "X".
- MTBE is quite soluble in water. After a petroleum release, the soluble components such as MTBE dissolve quickly into the groundwater. The insoluble hydrocarbon compounds float on the surface and are called non-aqueous phase liquids (NAPL), or free product. A hydrocarbon NAPL plume does not move fast, and is often quite stable. MTBE positively flies in comparison, and will move at the same rate as groundwater (often in the range of 2m to 500m per year). MTBE also has low biodegradation rates, so it goes a long ways before breaking down. And of course, NAPL floats on water, and will not impact a deep well very badly. MTBE faces no such restrictions.
- So, if an MTBE producer sells their product to a refinery, who then sells MTBE containing gasoline to a marketing firm, who then sells it to Buddy's gas station down in the bayou, who then is responsible for a product release from Buddy's leaking tank? I would say that Buddy is entirely, 100%, absolutely responsible for the release of product from his leaking tanks.
- Unfortunately, no-one is really responsible for their actions in this enlightened North American society. So, after calculating that the legal fees alone would bankrupt Buddy, the scumbag lawyers pursuing dubious claims of injury chase after the deep pockets. Kind of like Boies and SCO chasing IBM.
The problem is not really MTBE. Sure, MTBE tastes bad, and is far from healthy to ingest. The media likes to blame things on chemicals, and on the chemical industry. Typical journalists are not bright enough to actually understand or research the root cause of a problem, are afraid of chemicals, do not understand science, and instead seek a villian such as MTBE. Leaks and releases to the environment (you can introduce a lot of MTBE to surface water from your speedboat or jet ski) are the real problem. MTBE is not really that much worse than whatever will replace it, and is not any worse than the other stuff in gasoline. Getting rid of MTBE will not eliminate leaking underground storage tanks and careless operating practices by people like Buddy, above.
I think of MTBE as a canary. It tells you that there is a problem - a leaking tank. Fix the right problem (or the root problem - your choice). Don't ban MTBE. Require double walled underground storage tanks, double walled lines, dispenser sumps, continuous tank level monitoring, and leak detectors at every point in an UST system. Make the person storing and dispensing the gasoline responsible for the leak - after all, they control the substance when it escapes.
But politicians want a quick fix. They understand only "MTBE bad", without seeing the good, or understanding that the problems lie with gasoline handling, dispensing, and use.
Rant's over. I disagree with most of the rest of your comments, as you lack a factual basis for most of your assertions (for starters, MTBE was introduced in 1979, and added in greater quantities to improve air quality in 1988). However, I need to be up early tomorrow. Try looking around at the above links, and also at the US EPA. This guy's risk assessment appears pretty good.
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