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Attorney General Has Concerns With Gas Additive

By Tania Soussan
Journal Staff Writer
    Attorney General Patricia Madrid is wading into the debate over whether the federal energy bill should shield makers of a gasoline additive that contaminates drinking water.
    She and her colleagues from 11 other states last week wrote to congressional leaders, asking them to oppose liability protections for makers and users of MTBE.
    "This bill shields those who manufacture and use this dangerous product, when safer alternatives are available," Madrid said. " This bill is not in the public interest. Any company that risks the health of the public should be liable for the consequences."
    MTBE is added to gasoline to make it burn more efficiently and reduce air pollution, but it easily can contaminate ground water and poses health risks. There is evidence it causes cancer in animals.
    In New Mexico, experts believe MTBE has contaminated ground water at hundreds of sites.
    Contamination has been found in drinking water wells at concentrations as high as 51,000 parts per billion. There is no federal drinking water standard for MTBE.
    The state of New Mexico requires contaminated sites to be below 100 parts per billion to be considered cleaned up. There are many sites in the thousands of parts per billion.
    With no liability for the companies, states, local taxpayers and water consumers will have to pay for the contamination cleanup, Madrid said.
    The House energy bill includes a so-called "Fuels Safe Harbor" provision that would bar lawsuits filed after Sept. 5, 2003, against MTBE makers and oil companies that use it.
    The Senate energy bill— approved by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week and shaped in large part by Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.— does not include an MTBE shield.
    Earlier in May, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said he had the votes to prevent Congress from shielding the makers of MTBE from lawsuits filed by various states, including his.
    Two years ago, Gregg was one of six Republicans who refused to cut off debate on that year's energy bill because of a similar provision.
    House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas is a key backer of the lawsuit shield.
    The Associated Press contributed to this report.