Carlos David Mogollón, WC&P Executive Editor

Of MTBE, 60 Minutes, lead faucets and ‘legalized extortion’

Ah, just when you thought it’d be an easy year to enjoy, controversy rears its ugly head. By controversy, I mean two issues that seem to have 1) riled consumers, and 2) riled the point-of-use/point-of-entry water treatment industry.

The first refers to a Jan. 16 broadcast by CBS 60 Minutes about MTBE, the fuel oxygenate mandated by the 1990 Clean Air Act that’s contaminated much of the nation’s groundwater. WC&P first reported the subject in November 1997, with our own exposé in the March 1998 issue that also covered perchlorate as an emerging issue for waterborne contaminants.

Ironically, we detailed several treatment options being investigated to remove the substance, which moves quickly in groundwater and is slow to biodegrade, in that article and another by researchers at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Those methods include: air stripping, granular activated carbon, peroxone (hydrogen peroxide and ozone) and other advanced oxidation processes, membrane separation and bioremediation—although all were viewed as cost prohibitive for large scale needs. Dr. Kelly Reynolds also touched on the topic in her May 1999 On Tap column and we’ve continued to report new developments in our Newsreel section.

Yet, the 60 Minutes report—while an outstanding presentation overall—presented the information as if it might come as a big surprise to viewers and indicated  no treatment exists for MTBE: “nobody knows how to clean it up.” After the broadcast a deluge of press releases were filed about options offered by: Waterlink/Barnebey Sutcliffe, Calgon Carbon, Infectech Inc./BioRemedial Technologies, Wellness Filter and PUR, now owned by Procter & Gamble. The Water Quality Association posted its response on its website and noted that NSF International added a reduction claim for MTBE to Standard 53 in September l999.

While there’s no question the first step toward a solution is ending use of MTBE, there is a way to clean it up. The POU/POE industry has the answer. Needed are conclusive studies showing effective removal by those firms making marketing claims.

The second issue involves something truly obscure—a pattern of litigation threats over two years resulting in financial settlements against nearly 20 companies by attorneys for the Center for Environmental Health. You’ll recall CEH raised the issue of lead-bearing drinking water faucets in undercounter filtration systems in the summer of 1998, pressuring several manufacturers to discontinue their use or face lawsuits under California’s Proposition 65.

WC&P has acquired copies of legal settlements with some 16 companies opting to pay (from $30,000 to $50,000 usually) to forego legal expenses and negative publicity of contesting accusations their products may impart contaminants into drinking water greater than Prop. 65 levels (which are well below federal standards) allow. The settlements require them not to sell systems imparting far less than a limit set in an earlier group settlement with standard faucet manufacturers and insist they be applied to products sold globally or nationally.

Thomas Clarke, an anti-Prop. 65 attorney in San Francisco, noted the pattern is typical of “greenmailers” using Prop. 65 as “legalized extortion” whereby environmental groups like CEH are used as “beards” or fronts to generate fees for law firms while settlements, of which the state is due 50 percent, often go undisclosed. It’s questionable whether these serve public health goals or simply subvert state and federal laws for personal gain, he added.
On the other hand, CEH attorney Eric Somers points out, “litigation by regulation” is central to Prop. 65 to allow “private citizen enforcers” to assist overburdened, underfunded regulatory agencies in protecting public health. And, he adds, requiring lower limits is valid since  water from these systems is primarily for consumption, most companies approached didn’t do anything until lawsuit threats and nothing is binding—even on those that voluntarily switched to non-leaded brass faucets—unless a legal agreement is signed.
One thing is for sure, you’ll be reading more about this topic in WC&P.

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