Don't read my lips.
shall never be able to thank fully the aging reporter who was my
Moses, a fat man who descended from the Egyptian captivity of the
Los Angeles Times for temporary refuge at USC and who there offered
me in summary everything great I learned in journalism school: "If
your mother tells you she loves you, check it out."
follow Jesus; good journalists identify with the apostle we know
today as doubting Thomas. But two weeks ago, I defiled the fat man’s
gift of skepticism. I engaged in an act of faith and, worse, during
an episode of KOCE’s public affairs show Real Orange I passed
onto the public as fact something now revealed as fiction. I am
were talking about MTBE, a fuel additive that was supposed to make
gasoline burn cleaner and more efficiently, but which has since
leaked from underground storage tanks at hundreds of locations around
the country, more than 100 of them right here in Orange County.
MTBE damages soil and water. It causes cancer in lab animals, and
likely does so in humans.
KOCE, I pointed out that District Attorney Tony Rackauckas last
fall settled an MTBE suit with oil-refining giant ARCO for a measly
$8 million; a comparable suit last year in South Lake Tahoe produced
a whopping $60 million settlement. Rackauckas’ ARCO deal was
so puny, I said, that the Orange County Water District was filing
a suit of its own.
far, so good. Then came my faith-based error. "I think the
real challenge is going to be for people to tease out who’s
responsible here," I said, "because, after all, the oil
companies . . . really were only giving lawmakers what they said
they wanted—a fuel additive that would clean up fuel so that
air in the LA Basin wouldn’t be quite so toxic . . . ARCO
capitulated and gave the environmentalists what they wanted."
me. I should have known I was wrong when I saw smiles on the faces
of my right-wing counterparts, Orange County Business Journal executive
editor Rick Reiff and Republican Party vice chair Jo Ellen Allen.
had come to believe—based on countless reports in mainstream
magazines and newspapers—what the oil industry and its allies
in Congress want us to believe: that liberals in Congress forced
the oil industry to add MTBE to your gasoline in order to meet clean-air
is no academic issue, but one with billion-dollar implications:
if government forced oil companies to add MTBE to gasoline, shouldn’t
government shield those companies from litigation in MTBE spills?
Yes, said Representative Billy Tauzin, a Republican from the great
oil-producing state of Louisiana and chairman of a congressional
energy committee: "We"—and by "we," Tauzin
meant you and me and the government of this fine republic—"mandated
MTBE to help the environment. You"—and by "you"
he meant the oil industry—"can’t be held liable
for just complying with the law."
on such statements, I repeated into KOCE’s cameras and microphones
the same fiction: government made oil refiners add MTBE, and government
cannot now reasonably expect refiners to pay the cost of cleanup.
documents released in last year’s South Lake Tahoe case reveal
that the oil industry knew by the early 1980s that its underground
storage tanks were springing leaks faster than a beerhall full of
alcoholics; that MTBE migrates fast and furiously through metal,
earth and water; that even minute quantities of the gas additive
make water taste like turpentine; that the oil industry knew all
this and still, in 1992, persuaded federal officials that adding
MTBE to gasoline would safely reduce smog even as it raised gas
can see these documents for yourself on the Environmental
Working Group website, along with "Big Oil’s MTBE
Cover-Up," a brilliant article on the subject by Bill Walker,
the group’s vice president.
most fascinating in these documents is evidence the oil industry
fought aggressively to defend publicly a chemical it knew was dangerous.
It’s a repeat of everything we’ve come to learn about
the strategies of American cigarette manufacturers. In 1986, Walker
points out, Maine’s Environmental Protection Department found
MTBE was a "rapidly spreading groundwater contaminant"
and concluded it should "be stored only in double-contained
facilities." The Maine Petroleum Council, an industry trade
group, responded that the study was wrong—that MTBE was safe
and, even if spilled, easy to clean up. But at the same time, Walker
notes, a letter between ARCO and Unocal executives admitted the
industry’s own chemists had failed to punch holes in the Maine
report. They had no "data to refute comments made in the [Maine]
paper that MTBE may spread farther in a plume or may be more difficult
to remove/clean up than other gasoline constituents."
spin game didn’t stop with Maine, says Walker. Citing reports
last year in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee,
he notes that ARCO told the Reagan administration’s EPA that
it knew of no trouble with MTBE. "Where gasoline containing
MTBE is stored at refineries, terminals or service stations,"
an ARCO official told the feds, "there is little information
on MTBE in groundwater. We feel that there are no unique handling
was a lie. By then the industry already knew that MTBE was a disaster.
An Exxon memo from April 3, 1984, reveals "ethical and environmental
concerns" about the additive, including "possible leakage
. . . into underground water systems of a gasoline component that
is soluble in water to a much greater extent" than other chemicals
and a fuel that may actually produce "poorer fuel economy."
"That same year," Walker shows, "an Exxon engineer
wrote the first in a series of memos outlining ‘the reasons
MTBE could add to ground water incident costs and adverse public
did the industry promote MTBE as an additive and then cover up its
dangers? Walker says the answer is simple: profit. Back in the 1980s,
looking for alternatives to rising U.S. reliance on foreign oil,
Midwest congress members lobbied for federal subsidies to produce
ethanol, a corn-based fuel that burns cleaner than oil and is domestically
produced, but has one chief financial disadvantage where Big Oil
is concerned: ethanol is produced by farmers, not oil refiners.
I recall is the EPA actually promoting using methanol blends,"
an ARCO executive testified in the South Lake Tahoe case. "The
oil industry . . . brought [MTBE] forward as an alternative to what
the EPA had originally proposed."
oil industry, of course, won, and in 1992 the feds made MTBE the
additive of choice. A dark windfall of spills, leaks and environmental
contamination followed. As my colleague R. Scott Moxley discovered
two months ago ( "Toxic
Politics," March 16), a 1985 memo from an oil-industry
engineer advised companies to factor into their budgets the costs
of monitoring and preventing leaks of MTBE. An attorney involved
in the South Lake Tahoe suit told Moxley oil companies ignored that
advice, "choosing to protect billions of dollars in annual
profits over environmental safeguards that would have cost little
faced with lawsuits like those here in Orange County, the industry
wants government protection.
Drury, an attorney with Communities for a Better Environment, said
the companies’ claims "are outrageous." The Environmental
Working Group’s Walker agrees. "They knew from the early
1980s that MTBE was a threat to the groundwater," he told me.
"Their claims that they should be granted immunity from such
suits are based on a lie."