Jump to main content or area navigation.

Contact Us

Water: Articles and Activities for Middle School Students

Exercise III. MTBE Motives

The Internet is a useful tool for gathering information. It is always important however to check the source. Information is often written up and presented by companies, the government, or other organizations to convey particular messages. The same information might be presented in different ways depending on who is presenting it.

The excerpt below is from a Web site maintained by a New York State law firm (What is MTBE). Exit EPA Disclaimer Compare the information presented in this article with that in other methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) information sources. The MTBE Information chart below will help you compare information from different sources.

MTBE and other volatile organic compounds—New findings and implications on the quality of source waters used for drinking-water supplies  | PDF Version (2 pp, 48K)

Facts about MTBE

Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether, a gasoline additive, was developed in the late 1970s as an anti-knock (octane increasing) agent. It was used extensively in the 1980s. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 adopted an oxygenate requirement for gasoline sold in cities with smog problems. The U.S. oil companies primarily chose to keep using MTBE to comply with this requirement, rather than other oxygenates, including ethanol. Because of MTBE's unique properties – its high solubility in water that allows it to travel over long distances from the source of a fuel leak and its relatively high persistence (slow biodegradation) in groundwater – the chemical compound poses a current and potential environmental threat to public drinking water supplies. As a result, MTBE has been banned by 25 states, including California and New York, which had accounted for 40 percent of total MTBE consumption in the U.S. At levels as low as 1 part per billion, MTBE can be problematic. Only a few drops of MTBE, for example, can contaminate an Olympic-size pool filled with purified water giving it a turpentine-like smell and taste. The most effective method for water treatment of MTBE is granular activated carbon.  Today, MTBE has been largely replaced nationwide by ethanol.

History of Litigation

The quick dissolving and difficult-to-clean nature of MTBE and the likelihood of MTBE contamination of groundwater from leaking fuel tanks was known by the oil companies in the early 1980s, according to internal documents uncovered by Summy and colleague Celeste Evangelisti, in 1998 (Communities For a Better Environment vs. Unocal Corporation). The first MTBE contamination lawsuit in the United States was brought by Scott Summy on behalf of Wilmington, North Carolina residents. Conoco Oil settled with residents in 1997 for a confidential amount. Subsequent suits have been filed against gasoline manufacturers and distributors involving the contamination of drinking water in Lake Tahoe and Santa Monica. In 2001, Summy and Evangelisti received the "Attorneys of the Year" Award for Environmental Law from California Lawyer for their work on MTBE water contamination litigation.

Potential MTBE Health Risks

According to the EPA's Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to Eliminate or Limit the Use of MTBE in 2000, the fuel additive was classified as a "possible" human carcinogen and a "known" animal carcinogen under its 1986 cancer risk assessment guidelines based on animal studies involving high levels of exposure. A subsequent assessment by the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Health Effects Institute in 1997 generally supports the EPA's view on potential carcinogenic hazard.

[Article Source: Baron & Budd, P.C.--MTBE Fact Sheet Exit EPA Disclaimer]


Other law-related MTBE Resources:

MTBE: A Precautionary Tale. Harvard Environmental Law Review, Vol. 28., 2004 Exit EPA Disclaimer

MTBE Presence in Groundwater: Current Legal and Policy Implications for Prevention and Cleanup, 2006 Policy Brief, Nelson A. Rockefeller Center, Dartmouth College Exit EPA Disclaimer

MTBE Information

1. What are the sources of MTBE?
Information Source 1 Information Source 2 Information Source 3
     


2. What are the benefits of MTBE?
Information Source 1 Information Source 2 Information Source 3
     


3. How much gasoline in the United States contains MTBE?
Information Source 1 Information Source 2 Information Source 3
     


4. What are alternatives to MTBE?
Information Source 1 Information Source 2 Information Source 3
     


5. What are the disadvantages of using MTBE?
Information Source 1 Information Source 2 Information Source 3
     


6. How does MTBE affect humans?
Information Source 1 Information Source 2 Information Source 3
     


7. What is unknown about MTBE?
Information Source 1 Information Source 2 Information Source 3
     


8. What does the author recommend as a solution?
Information Source 1 Information Source 2 Information Source 3
     


9. Is this article objective or subjective? Give reasons why. (Answer for all three sources you used.)
Information Source 1 Information Source 2 Information Source 3
     

 

Motive

What could a law firm gain by writing an article about MTBE?


 

Middle Schools  |  Bon Voyage to Bad Boating Habits
Exercise I  |  Exercise II  |  Exercise III  |  Exercise IV  | Exercise V

Top of page


Jump to main content.