MTBE Lies I Told You

An apology by Will Swaim

I shall never be able to thank fully the aging reporter who was my Moses, a fat man who descended from the Egyptian captivity of the Los Angeles Times for temporary refuge at USC and who there offered me in summary everything great I learned in journalism school: "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out."

Christians follow Jesus; good journalists identify with the apostle we know today as doubting Thomas. But two weeks ago, I defiled the fat man's gift of skepticism. I engaged in an act of faith and, worse, during an episode of KOCE's public affairs show Real Orange I passed onto the public as fact something now revealed as fiction. I am ashamed.

We were talking about MTBE, a fuel additive that was supposed to make gasoline burn cleaner and more efficiently, but which has since leaked from underground storage tanks at hundreds of locations around the country, more than 100 of them right here in Orange County. MTBE damages soil and water. It causes cancer in lab animals, and likely does so in humans.

On KOCE, I pointed out that District Attorney Tony Rackauckas last fall settled an MTBE suit with oil-refining giant ARCO for a measly $8 million; a comparable suit last year in South Lake Tahoe produced a whopping $60 million settlement. Rackauckas' ARCO deal was so puny, I said, that the Orange County Water District was filing a suit of its own.

So far, so good. Then came my faith-based error. "I think the real challenge is going to be for people to tease out who's responsible here," I said, "because, after all, the oil companies . . . really were only giving lawmakers what they said they wanted—a fuel additive that would clean up fuel so that air in the LA Basin wouldn't be quite so toxic . . . ARCO capitulated and gave the environmentalists what they wanted."

ARCO capitulated.

Stupid me. I should have known I was wrong when I saw smiles on the faces of my right-wing counterparts, Orange County Business Journal executive editor Rick Reiff and Republican Party vice chair Jo Ellen Allen.

I had come to believe—based on countless reports in mainstream magazines and newspapers—what the oil industry and its allies in Congress want us to believe: that liberals in Congress forced the oil industry to add MTBE to your gasoline in order to meet clean-air guidelines.

This is no academic issue, but one with billion-dollar implications: if government forced oil companies to add MTBE to gasoline, shouldn't government shield those companies from litigation in MTBE spills? Yes, said Representative Billy Tauzin, a Republican from the great oil-producing state of Louisiana and chairman of a congressional energy committee: "We"—and by "we," Tauzin meant you and me and the government of this fine republic—"mandated MTBE to help the environment. You"—and by "you" he meant the oil industry—"can't be held liable for just complying with the law."

Based on such statements, I repeated into KOCE's cameras and microphones the same fiction: government made oil refiners add MTBE, and government cannot now reasonably expect refiners to pay the cost of cleanup.

But documents released in last year's South Lake Tahoe case reveal that the oil industry knew by the early 1980s that its underground storage tanks were springing leaks faster than a beerhall full of alcoholics; that MTBE migrates fast and furiously through metal, earth and water; that even minute quantities of the gas additive make water taste like turpentine; that the oil industry knew all this and still, in 1992, persuaded federal officials that adding MTBE to gasoline would safely reduce smog even as it raised gas mileage.

You can see these documents for yourself on the Environmental Working Group website, along with "Big Oil's MTBE Cover-Up," a brilliant article on the subject by Bill Walker, the group's vice president.

What's most fascinating in these documents is evidence the oil industry fought aggressively to defend publicly a chemical it knew was dangerous. It's a repeat of everything we've come to learn about the strategies of American cigarette manufacturers. In 1986, Walker points out, Maine's Environmental Protection Department found MTBE was a "rapidly spreading groundwater contaminant" and concluded it should "be stored only in double-contained facilities." The Maine Petroleum Council, an industry trade group, responded that the study was wrong—that MTBE was safe and, even if spilled, easy to clean up. But at the same time, Walker notes, a letter between ARCO and Unocal executives admitted the industry's own chemists had failed to punch holes in the Maine report. They had no "data to refute comments made in the [Maine] paper that MTBE may spread farther in a plume or may be more difficult to remove/clean up than other gasoline constituents."

The spin game didn't stop with Maine, says Walker. Citing reports last year in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee, he notes that ARCO told the Reagan administration's EPA that it knew of no trouble with MTBE. "Where gasoline containing MTBE is stored at refineries, terminals or service stations," an ARCO official told the feds, "there is little information on MTBE in groundwater. We feel that there are no unique handling problems."

It was a lie. By then the industry already knew that MTBE was a disaster. An Exxon memo from April 3, 1984, reveals "ethical and environmental concerns" about the additive, including "possible leakage . . . into underground water systems of a gasoline component that is soluble in water to a much greater extent" than other chemicals and a fuel that may actually produce "poorer fuel economy." "That same year," Walker shows, "an Exxon engineer wrote the first in a series of memos outlining 'the reasons MTBE could add to ground water incident costs and adverse public exposure.'"

Why did the industry promote MTBE as an additive and then cover up its dangers? Walker says the answer is simple: profit. Back in the 1980s, looking for alternatives to rising U.S. reliance on foreign oil, Midwest congress members lobbied for federal subsidies to produce ethanol, a corn-based fuel that burns cleaner than oil and is domestically produced, but has one chief financial disadvantage where Big Oil is concerned: ethanol is produced by farmers, not oil refiners.

"What I recall is the EPA actually promoting using methanol blends," an ARCO executive testified in the South Lake Tahoe case. "The oil industry . . . brought [MTBE] forward as an alternative to what the EPA had originally proposed."

The oil industry, of course, won, and in 1992 the feds made MTBE the additive of choice. A dark windfall of spills, leaks and environmental contamination followed. As my colleague R. Scott Moxley discovered two months ago ( "Toxic Politics," March 16), a 1985 memo from an oil-industry engineer advised companies to factor into their budgets the costs of monitoring and preventing leaks of MTBE. An attorney involved in the South Lake Tahoe suit told Moxley oil companies ignored that advice, "choosing to protect billions of dollars in annual profits over environmental safeguards that would have cost little by comparison."

Now, faced with lawsuits like those here in Orange County, the industry wants government protection.

Richard Drury, an attorney with Communities for a Better Environment, said the companies' claims "are outrageous." The Environmental Working Group's Walker agrees. "They knew from the early 1980s that MTBE was a threat to the groundwater," he told me. "Their claims that they should be granted immunity from such suits are based on a lie."

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