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Elizabeth Bluemink News Journal correspondent

Low levels of a harmful gasoline additive are present in seven Escambia County Utilities Authority wells.

Officials said the main source of the methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), a noxious chemical used to reduce auto emissions and boost octane, is petroleum leaks from local underground fuel storage tanks.

Trace amounts of MTBE, a potential carcinogen, began showing up in local drinking water years ago but have not reached levels considered to be harmful. However, there is no state or federal safety level established for MTBE in drinking water.

Escambia County Utilities Authority Executive Director Stephen Sorrell said he is concerned about the possibility of harmful pollution and an expensive cleanup in the future and wants ECUA’s board to take action on the contamination.

“It’s not good for you. It shouldn’t be there,” Sorrell said.

At least 11 of ECUA’s 31 wells have tested positive for MTBE in trace amounts in the past, Sorrell said. He said MTBE was first detected in the wells four years ago.

ECUA serves 90,000 customers but it is impossible to determine how many have received MTBE- tainted water, Sorrell said. He explained that water from the wells is pumped to a central distribution system.

“The MTBE moves so fast in the groundwater. It comes and it goes, depending on which underground storage tank is leaking at the time,” he said.

The State of Florida has required monitoring for MTBE in petroleum plumes in underground aquifers for at least a decade, said Sally Cooey, spokeswoman for the Northwest Florida district of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

ECUA began monitoring for MTBE when the utility discovered the chemical in its supply wells four years ago, Sorrell said.

The highest MTBE level found in an ECUA well in the past year was about four parts per billion – nine times lower than the 50 parts per billion that Florida requires to be cleaned up in groundwater polluted to that level or higher.

The scientific community is still debating the toxic effects of MTBE. However, the discovery of MTBE in drinking water supplies in thousands of communities across the nation has created alarm. The proposed energy bill now being debated in Congress contains language that would protect oil companies from MTBE-related litigation.

While current MTBE levels in local wells are too low to warrant immediate health concerns, Sorrell believes that oil companies need to bear the cost of a potential cleanup.

In a memorandum to ECUA board members, Sorrell said he wants to move quickly to be in a position to sue any responsible oil companies, if necessary. Such a lawsuit would have to be filed before the national energy bill becomes law.

“We just don’t think the rate- payers should clean it up. It is pretty difficult to clean it up, as I understand it,” Sorrell said. T

he source of MTBE contamination is usually easy to find, a state official said.

“If you find MTBE in groundwater, in all probability it would be a petroleum release” that can be traced to a gas station or oil terminal, said Mike Sole, director of the Florida Department of Environmental Management’s waste division.

Sole said he knows of “quite a few” petroleum releases in the Pensacola area from underground storage tanks that have leaked into the Sand and Gravel Aquifer used for the area’s water supply.

The presence of dry cleaning and petroleum contaminants in the water supply has caused ECUA to install expensive carbon filters at 11 wells.

Sorrell said he wants ECUA staff to begin reporting very detailed, technical information to state environmental regulators about the MTBE contamination.

“If we find it, we are going to give that (information) to them,” he said. In its regularly scheduled Thursday meeting, the ECUA board will discuss the contamination and whether the utility will sue oil companies that use MTBE in gasoline.

MTBE is costly to remove from groundwater, but it can be removed from drinking water using carbon filters or fan-like devices that strip the chemical from the water.

WANT TO GO? WHAT: Escambia County Utilities Authority board regular meeting. WHEN: 3 p.m. Thursday. WHERE: ECUA Board Room, 9250 Hamman St., Ellyson Industrial Park. DETAILS: Board will conduct regular business and hear report from its attorney on possibly suing oil companies for MTBE contamination in drinking water supply.

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