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Weiner leads national fight against air pollution

INSIDE WASHINGTON/Fueling the debate

Apr 1, 2004 12:00 PM
By Mark Preston

The MTBE immunity provision may doom the energy bill.

City and county leaders remain steadfast in their opposition to federally sanctioned immunity for producers of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), a gasoline additive that has contaminated water supplies across the nation. The Environmental Protection Agency has identified MTBE as a possible carcinogen, and local officials are concerned that granting immunity to producers would mean taking on cleanups themselves.

It will cost an estimated $29 billion to clean up MTBE-contaminated water supplies, but local officials say they expect the final price to be much higher. “We face potentially huge costs and legal fees, which we view as an unfunded mandate,” says New Castle County, Del., Council Member Robert Weiner.

MTBE has been used since the 1970s, but it became particularly popular in the 1990s as a gasoline additive to help improve air quality. Many local officials and environmentalists claim the MTBE industry knew its product would contaminate the water supplies but still pushed for its use.

Granting immunity to MTBE producers is a contentious topic on Capitol Hill — so controversial, in fact, that it is largely blamed for Congress' failure to approve a sweeping energy bill. House Republican leaders insist that liability protection be included in the energy legislation, while Senate GOP leaders want the protection removed from the bill.

So far, city and county allies in the Senate have enough votes to filibuster an energy bill with a liability protection provision. Senate leaders fear that unless the House agrees to strip the protection from the energy bill, the legislation will not pass this year. Preparing for the worst case scenario, senators have begun to break up the energy bill into pieces, and lobbyists worry the protection provision could be attached to another bill that is moving quickly through Congress. “[Our] biggest concern is whether [the MTBE provision] makes its way onto a huge omnibus bill or a transportation bill or the military construction bill,” says Veronique Pluviose-Fenton, principal legislative counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based National League of Cities (NLC).

Some opponents of the MTBE measure recently ran an advertisement in a Capitol Hill newspaper urging House and Senate members to oppose any legislation that provides MTBE liability protection. Last month, the Washington, D.C.-based League of Conservation Voters ran radio advertisements in Indiana and Nevada urging Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., to continue opposing any MTBE liability provisions.

Fremont, Calif., Mayor Gus Morrison says it is important to note that local and state governments are not asking Congress to indict the producers of MTBE but to allow for the courts to make the appropriate judgment on liability. “We are not asking Congress to put into the bill that the manufacturers should pay for it. We are just asking not to absolve them of their fault in the matter, which should be determined in court,” Morrison says.

In any event, both Morrison and Weiner think that the two presidential candidates will stake out a position on the MTBE issue. “I would expect this would raise itself as an issue over the next couple of months,” Morrison says.

The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.

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