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New rules to prevent MTBE leaks will go into effect today

New environmental regulations aimed at preventing leaks of a toxic gasoline additive into groundwater take effect today, with service station owners complaining the rules are too costly and some residents saying they aren't tough enough.

Proposed on an emergency basis late last year by the Maryland Department of the Environment, the rules won unanimous approval yesterday from a joint legislative committee that reviews such regulations.

The regulations, which apply in areas where residents rely on private wells, require that all new fuel storage tanks installed underground be fitted with double-walled piping and built-in sensors to warn of leaks. Tank owners also must drill monitoring wells, check their drinking water every three months, and test their tanks and fittings for leaks at least once a year.

The rules spell out additional steps that tank owners must take to clean up groundwater if unsafe levels of the additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) or other gasoline ingredients are detected.

MTBE has been found, usually at low levels, in more than 600 private wells in Maryland, primarily in Cecil, Harford, Carroll, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. The chemical, added to gasoline to cause it to burn more cleanly, has caused cancer in laboratory rats at high doses, but its health effects at low levels are unknown. At 20 parts per billion or higher, the state recommends filtering water or getting it from another source.

Gas station owners complained at an Annapolis hearing last week that the costs of additional groundwater testing could drive them out of business. Some residents from Harford County's Fallston area, where widespread MTBE contamination was discovered last summer, want the additive banned from gasoline, as it is in some other states.

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