Choosing Between Air or Water?

Daniel Whalen was helping a Hyde Park, New York, neighbor with some yard work on a fall Sunday afternoon when he first heard a rumor that his well water might not be safe to drink, cook with, or bath in. Somewhat alarmed, he contacted the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and was told that his well, and several others in the area, was contaminated with methyl tertiary butyl ether, or M.T.B.E., an additive to gasoline. Mr. Whalen and his neighbors soon learned that their levels of contamination varied from single digits per billion parts of water to 940 per billion; the state standard for safe drinking water is 10 parts per billion.

Residents of Hyde Park got a crash course in methyl tertiary butyl ether. M.T.B.E. has been mixed with gasoline in most states since the 1970s to increase the octane rating and make the fuel burn more efficiently. It is made from methanol, is a by-product of the oil refining process, and, like other ethers, is hydrophilic. It is 30 times more soluble in water than other compounds of gasoline and is therefore a particular threat to groundwater. It would be hard to imagine a more effective groundwater contaminant. M.T.B.E. is also a known animal carcinogen and a possible human one.

The DEC had identified the source of the Hyde Park contamination as a leak in the underground tank at the Cenco gas station on Route 9G, one of 1,500 spills in New York State resulting in soil or water contamination from M.T.B.E. Water trucks now provide some of water to the neighborhood, and carbon filters have been placed in the homes most affected.

A U. S. Geological Survey of almost 3,000 wells around the country showed that M.T.B.E. is one of the top four contaminants to groundwater. Above 40 micrograms of M.T.B.E. per liter, water begins to smell like fresh paint or turpentine. M.T.B.E. is now being phased out in New York State because of its effects on drinking water, and will not be allowed in gasoline after 2004. An EPA panel has recommended that it be reduced as a gasoline additive.

So, a product that has been used to help comply with the Clean Air Act has violated the spirit of that act. The residents of this Hyde Park neighborhood are left to worry about their property values, and about the unknown effects on humans of M.T.B.E.


Environmental Protection Agency. 2000. "MTBE."

Reed, Christina. 2000. "When good compounds go bad," Geotimes, January, pp. 10-11.

Worth, Robert. 2000. "Outrage as a Neighborhood Learns That Its Water Is Contaminated," New York Times on the Web, December 12.