MTBE sparks Danish fuel station controls

Voluntary agreement aims at preventing leakage as huge consumption increase forecast

Denmark is to tighten anti-leakage measures at all motor fuel filling stations following fears that increasing use of the fuel oxygenate methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) risked contaminating groundwater - the main source of Danish drinking water. The national environmental protection agency (EPA) believes the country is the first in Europe to take measures aimed at isolating the substance as far as practicable from the environment.

MTBE is used as fuel additive for increasing octane levels in place of lead and aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzene, and for reducing vehicle emissions. The EPA expects its use to soar after Euro 4 fuel quality controls come into effect from 2005. Costed at up to DKr1bn (euros 134m), the measures follow recent closure of a drinking water well in Jutland where MTBE levels were found above the national limit of 30 micrograms per litre. Several other lesser finds have also been reported.

The improvements will be funded by members of the Danish Petroleum Industry Association (OFR) following a voluntary understanding signed in December. A campaign will also be launched to persuade motorists to switch to lower octane fuel until it can no longer be avoided when use of aromatic hydrocarbons is further restricted under EU law from 2005. Detailed discussions on new regulations will start this spring.

An EPA official told ENDS Daily the main reason for action was that MTBE made drinking water unpalatable, affecting both taste and odour. A health risk had not been conclusively proven and Denmark did not plan to seek a ban, he added. California last year became the first public authority in the world to announce a phase-out, citing "significant environmental risk" after research indicated MTBE might be carcinogenic.

Flemming Ludvigsen of the OFR stressed that use of MTBE was far from being the only reason for tightening leakage controls at petrol stations. "It's just the trigger, and has probably brought action forward by a couple of years," he told ENDS Daily.

Follow Up:
Danish EPA, tel: +45 32 66 01 00); OFR, tel: +45 33 11 30 77. The United States EPA recently compiled a useful set of web links on MTBE in its Internet Newsbrief.

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