Like gas with your water?

When you fuel up your car, do you ever wonder whether the gas station’s tanks are leaking?

Most of us don’t give it a moment’s thought, but we probably should. After all, when gas leaks into the ground, it could end up in our drinking water.

This was the message given at a June 10 public forum held in the Chico City Council Chambers. Right now, in fact, there are several large plumes of contaminated water in the underground aquifer from which Chicoans get their drinking water.

The contamination can occur from a variety of sources—any business that uses toxic solvents, in fact—but gas stations and dry cleaners are the most common villains.

The Butte Environmental Council, which hosted the forum, invited panelists from a variety of state, city and private businesses to speak and answer questions from the public. The meeting specifically focused on the area of South Chico where the danger of groundwater pollution is high due to a large amount of petroleum spillage.

There are currently seven cases of groundwater pollution in South Chico, said panelist Eric Rapport of the state Regional Water Quality Control Board, including the three large plumes. A lot of this spilled gasoline can be removed through various cleanup methods, he said, but often gas additives linger behind. For example, the methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE), added to gas to make it burn cleaner, “doesn’t readily biodegrade on its own,” he said, and it “makes groundwater unpalatable at low concentrations.”

Other additives, such as benzene, which can cause cancer, may also be dangerous to have in a water supply.

Audience members asked questions about health risks and the state’s apparent lack of enforcement toward contaminators. In response, Rapport indicated that the board doesn’t want to “deliberately drive someone into oblivion” with fines.

"Pampering polluters doesn’t lead to clean water," one audience member fired back.