California bill may affect MTBE lawsuit

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE - It's too early to tell whether a new bill in the California Legislature would affect the South Tahoe Public Utility District's lawsuit against makers and sellers of a polluting fuel additive.

So say district officials; however, the bill introduced late last month by Assemblywoman Sheila James Kuehl probably won't hurt.

"Until you see how this thing shakes out in committee, it's hard to tell," said Dennis Cocking, utility information officer. "Our concern was it might limit the ability of a water agency or a city to go after a responsible party, and it doesn't seem to do that.

"Assemblywoman Kuehl is from Santa Monica (which has had major problems with the additive), so I have to think she wants the same type of things we do."

Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, introduced Assembly Bill 2483 to create strict liability for contaminating a water supply from gasoline leaks or spills. It also creates joint and several liability for contamination, meaning that all parties responsible to any extent for the pollution could be held liable. And the bill would allow the California Environmental Protection Agency to prohibit the sale of gas containing the additive in areas where it has forced the closure of public drinking water wells.

"Water is basic to life and must be kept clean," Kuehl said. "We have a right to expect that the water we drink is free of pollutants."

Methyl tertiary butyl ether is a fuel additive that for years comprised significant portions of California gasoline. It is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a possible cancer-causing agent. Because it has a horrible taste and odor, most people can detect it in water at very low levels of contamination.

Numerous additive plumes contaminate South Shore's water, and since September 1997 more than one-third of the district's wells have been closed because it.

The South Lake Tahoe utility filed a lawsuit in November 1998 against 31 parties ranging from big oil companies to Tahoe gas station owners. The suit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, alleges that the defendants marketed the additive in South Lake Tahoe when they knew - or should have known - that the gasoline additive would reach groundwater, pollute public water supplies and threaten public health.

No specific dollar amount was listed.

To date, the utility has spent more than $2 million fighting the contamination. A trial is scheduled for November.


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