This article first appeared in the June 26, 2014 edition of the Vermont Standard.
By Katy Savage, Standard Staff
It’s been 17 years since a 2,200-gallon fuel delivery truck rolled over at the intersection of Merritt and Quechee Roads in Hartland and spilled an estimated 700 gallons of fuel, according to a report from the Agency of Natural Resources. But methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), a gasoline additive that migrates quickly in the ground and doesn’t break down easily, is still being detected in Peter Cornelius’ well at his home on Balhart Ridge Road in Hartland.
His well was contaminated with MTBE in 2005, two years after he moved into his home. Nearly 40 other wells were contaminated. Experts aren’t entirely sure why, but they believe the 1997 spill was the cause. Along with Hartland, MTBE is still found in groundwater in Killington and across the state, even though it’s been banned since 2007.
“We are seeing historic problems cropping up,” said Chuck Schwer of the ANR.
Earlier this month, the Vermont Attorney General’s office filed a lawsuit in the Washington Superior Court against several of the largest petroleum companies, including Exxon Mobil Corporation, Chevron U.S.A., Inc., and Sunoco, Inc., alleging that the companies knew about the contamination risks of MTBE.
“Defendants failed to warn customers, retailers, regulators, or public officials, and failed to take any other precautionary measures to prevent or mitigate such contamination. Instead, defendants promoted MTBE, and gasoline containing MTBE, as environmentally sound products appropriate for widespread use,” said a court document composed by the Attorney General’s office.
MTBE, which studies show can cause cancer and can be toxic to kidneys, was a common additive in gasoline in underground storage tanks in the 1990s.
“The combination was a perfect storm to have gas with this additive at a time when gas tanks were leaking throughout the state,” Schwer said.
Each year, for the past 20 years, the state has spent about $5 million for water contamination clean up; most if it has been related to MTBE, said Schwer.
The success of lawsuits in other states was, in part, what prompted Vermont to file one.
Last year, for example, a New Hampshire jury ordered Exxon Mobil to pay $236 million for groundwater contamination caused by MTBE.
“There were other legal developments elsewhere in the last year or so that prompted us to think that this was the time to do it,” said Scott Kline of the state Attorney General’s office.
While the state awaits the outcome of the lawsuit, MTBE has also been seen in towns like Hinesburg, Clarendon and in Killington, where an underground storage tank leaked and contaminated residence and business water supplies in the West Hill Road area.
The problem was detected in 1993, after a resident noticed a gasoline odor coming from his tap water.
“He claimed at the beginning that it was ignitable…it was so concentrated with gasoline,” said Schwer.
The state over-pumped his well continuously and treated it with carbon. About 283 gallons of contaminated water was extracted and treated and another 1,000 gallons of water was obtained from the soil with a soil extraction system.
MTBE was also detected in about 28 wells of the total 70 that were tested, a report from Marin Environmental, Inc. said.
If there is an underground leak, the state puts in soil borings and monitoring wells to clean up. Sometimes it puts in a groundwater extraction system, or a carbon filtration unit if the groundwater is highly contaminated. The state provides bottled water to those who are affected and continues monitoring until MTBE is at less than 20 parts per billion.
“We’ve taken a more conservative approach with drinking water wells that are contaminated,” Schwer said.
It’s a waiting game for those wells that are impacted.
MTBE wasn’t detected in Hartland until 2000, during a routine water sample at the Hartland Recreation Center. Neighboring sites that were sampled also found high levels of MTBE, including Hartland Elementary School, located about 2 miles from the spill.
Cornelius thought his well would be clear of contamination long ago.
Ever since the problem was detected, MTBE levels ranged from 10 parts per billion to over 100, he said. It’s higher in the spring after the snow melts and Cornelius draws more water, he said.
“Honestly we’re just kind of numb to it right now because there’s nothing we can do,” he said.
Most of the hazardous material has been cleared in Hartland and Killington, but the state continues monitoring Cornelius’ well and the Hartland Elementary School water supply.
“It’s a nuisance to say the least,” Cornelius said. “I’d love to be able to pour a glass of water out of my tap. You can’t do that, you just have to be cautious.”
The problem isn’t going away in other parts of the state, either. About a year ago, a woman in Underhill noticed her drinking water tasted different. MTBE was detected in her well, but the state doesn’t know where it came from, Schwer said.
“We’re definitely still seeing it,” Schwer said.