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Gasoline Additive MTBE Threatens Long Island’s Drinking Water


“Remediation is an extremely difficult job,” says Lee Koppelman Ph.D, director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies and professor of public policy at Stony Brook University. “If you wait until the plume passes the area, then the plume contaminates areas that were not contaminated just by traveling through it.”

Koppelman served as project director on the Nassau-Suffolk Regional Planning Board when MTBE, a compound that was added to gasoline to reduce air pollution, was first being introduced in 1979. It was around this time that the board helped push laws through that require all gas stations to eliminate steel tanks and replace them with fiberglass tanks that do not corrode.

MTBE was banned in NYS in 2004 when it was discovered how quickly the highly soluble compound traveled in groundwater and its inability to break down over time. It travels faster and farther than the other chemicals found in gasoline, like benzene, and is classified as a suspected carcinogen by the federal government.


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One example of just how bad MTBE potentially is can be found in the work of Dr. Myron Mehlman. The former chief of toxicology for Mobil Oil, who was terminated in 1989 from his position for blowing the whistle on the dangers MTBE poses to humans, determined through one study case that four individuals out of 1,000 could potentially develop cancer from MTBE exposure.

His research, which has been cited in numerous journals and court testimony regarding MTBE spills, found that the chemical caused the same types of cancers that benzene, a known human carcinogen, caused in animals.

Mehlman’s colleague, Dr. Nachman Brautbar, a forensic toxicologist and clinical professor at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, testified about MTBE’s carcinogenic characteristics before the U.S. Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee in 1997. His statements offer Long Islanders a glimpse of what actually could be lurking beneath us today. According to the testimony, different people could respond to the same level of exposure differently—and MTBE combined with other known carcinogens contained in gasoline could multiply its effects.

“For a susceptible individual, there may be a hundred times greater risk for contracting and dying from cancer,” it reads.

A groundwater remediation system in Garden City Park.

PRICE AT THE PUMP

Two feet of MTBE-laced gasoline was discovered floating beneath a former Ford dealership across the street from Chaminade High School in 2001, property the school now owns, according to spill mapping reports generated by Toxic Targeting. Levels of MTBE at 86,000 parts per billion, more than 8,000 times the NYS drinking water standard, were found in 2002 across the street in a test well drilled next to the high school’s football field, the maps say.

The property, now an empty, gated lot at 311 Jericho Tpke. in Mineola, has been remediated, explains the DEC—but underground contamination doesn’t stop at property lines, say watchdogs. Toxic chemicals that have migrated away from the site are still there, and the plume is moving, charges Hang.

“They’ll never clean it up,” he says. “They had multiple feet of [gasoline] originally but it migrated an enormous distance and they’ll never recover that.”

A DEC fact sheet obtained by thePress, dated May 2009, details the cleanup of off-site groundwater contamination. The well at Armstrong and Park Avenues in Garden City Park, nearly a mile away from the school’s property, marks the edge of the MTBE groundwater plume and keeps it from migrating any farther, according to the document. Only 55 feet of fresh water are currently separating the contaminated water from the drinking water, it reads.

According to Hang, underground gasoline from the spill could still be impacting the area beneath the high school.

“The indoor air impact is going to be the next big thing,” he says. “There is no indoor air standard for MTBE. There’s no indoor air standard for benzene even though it’s a known human cancer-causing agent.”

Father James Williams, president of Chaminade, tells the Press the spill has been remediated.

“The spill is clean,” he assures. “I have a letter from the DEC that says it’s cleaned.”

Water Plant Operators Marvin Schneider and John Markwalter test a Town of Hempstead well for gasoline components.

The DEC identified more than 1,200 spills reported between 1978 and 1998 on Long Island as having leaked MTBE into the groundwater. These spills exist in growing numbers, and water districts, which are required by law to test for gasoline components including MTBE, are well aware. The Garden City Park Water District water supply wells, which are in direct line of the plume, are tested monthly to meet strict state and federal standards—and the drinking water has not been impacted, the agency says.

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