MTBE and Water Contamination

The Story of MTBE and the early lawsuits in New York begins in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) is an additive to gasoline. It is added to increase the octane in gas. It is also considered a cancer-causing risk.

Over the years with the decommissioning of gas stations, many underground storage tanks were abandoned and began leaking into the surrounding areas. This contaminated ground water supplies. As you might imagine, cleaning this up became a priority. It also became clear quickly that it would be difficult and expensive.

The cost to clean up MTBE is large with some estimating that it would cost over 29 Billion nationwide to clean up (some estimates are at $80+ Billion), while others have estimated that cost on Long Island along could balloon to $30 Billion dollars.

One of the battles that was fought was whether gasoline makers could escape liability for costs for cleanup. Immunity for the cost of cleanup was proposed as part of an Energy Bill in the early 2000s. The Superintendent of the Plainview Water District fought for the removal of a safe harbor provision that would have granted this relief. This would have meant that taxpayers would have had to bear the cost of cleanup, resulting in rate increases. Ultimately the “safe harbor” provision was removed from the version of the bill presented in 2004.

In support of the bill, Mr. Granger testified before the US Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate Change, and Nuclear Safety in 2003.
"Once MTBE is introduced into the environment, it can be extremely difficult and expensive to investigate or remediate."

"Swift and determined action must be taken to eliminate the MTBE threat. Providing a safe harbor for the parties that created the problem shifts the enormous economic and public health burden ultimately onto the innocent parties, namely the water consumer."

"We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg at this time. The safe harbor provision would unjustly shield the petroleum and ethanol industries from defective product liability under federal and state law for the use of either MTBE or renewable fuels, including ethanol."

"Such a provision would unfairly place the monumental cleanup and treatment costs on water suppliers and, ultimately, the customer," Statement of Paul J. Granger, P.E., March 2003. (n.d.). Retrieved from

What is MTBE and what does it mean?

It’s methyl tertiary-butyl ether (or MTBE as an abbreviation) and is used as an additive to gasoline to increase octane for fuel. It also is classified as a solvent. The chemical compound is an ether or alcohol.

Where does MTBE originate?

It’s a flammable mixture of isobutylene and methanol, used in unleaded gas as a liquid form since the 1980’s to oxygenate the fuel for more efficient use and fight pollution.

Is MTBE toxic and can it be connected to cancer?

It can be in certain amounts. However, government organizations like the EPA have not technically classified it as cancer causing although studies show it may cause liver or kidney cancer in laboratory rats and mice.

Why is MTBE harmful?

Since it can cause cancer and is in a gas/vapor form, it can easily be inhaled from gas stations/cars and water table contamination, due to underground gas tanks since the 1980’s.

What are some symptoms of MTBE poisoning?

Some MTBE exposure symptoms can be nausea, dizziness, headaches and confusion. It’s difficult to tell if these symptoms are solely caused by MTBE as a gas additive, or it may be other chemicals added to the gas as well.

Where can it be found?

Unfortunately, this chemical is soluble in water and can settle in groundwater, staying there for a very long time to create contamination. It’s still in gasoline in certain areas, as well as airborne near well-traveled highways and cities.

Why is it added to gasoline?

To oxygenate or increase the octane in unleaded fuel at gas stations in various parts of the world, which in turn increases fuel efficiency for cars.

What connection does MTBE have with some diseases?

With studies done in laboratory mice and rats, it’s shown to be related to kidney and liver damage, gastrointestinal irritation, and may have effects on the nervous system as well.

Why is it banned in some states?

Since MTBE can be harmful to humans, most states have a partial or complete ban on the additive. Depending on the state, the partial ban allows a small percentage of MTBE in gas, but states have slowly begun to phase out MTBE, which started in early 2000's.

What is the MTBE replacement?

MTBE manufacturers switched over to making a more environmentally friendly additive called ETBE - ethyl tertiary butyl ether, typically made from corn-based ethanol.

The list of toxic substances in petroleum products in long.  The more common question we get is whether benzene cancer is caused by long time exposure to these solvents and oils and gasolines.  

Leave a Comment