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Traces of Gas Additive Found In North Carolina's Well Water

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WAKE COUNTY — The Clinton administration announced Monday a plan to right an environmental wrong by phasing out a gas additive, but the reversal comes a bit late for many North Carolina families.

Louise Somers never knew how much she relied on her well water until she was forced to make due with water from a bottle.

In December, the state informed Louise and her husband, Paul, that their well water was contaminated, the same well water they had consumed for more than forty years.

"Well, it makes me wonder what it can cause," Somers says.

State Toxicologist Dr. Ken Rudo blames a common gasoline additive known as Methyl Tertiary-Butyl Ether or MTBE. The highly water-soluble additive, linked to cancer in animals, has been found in over 1,000 wells in North Carolina alone.

Ironically, theU.S. Environmental Protection Agencyhailed MTBE as an environmental savior ten years ago.

"It's sort of sad that something that was going to be used for such a fine purpose, which was to make the air cleaner, has turned out to be a chemical with the potential to pose a risk," Rudo says.

Rudo says when an old convenience store was leveled to make way for Skycrest Road, they found leaking, underground gas tanks. Now, a few hundred feet away, families like the Somers have to drink and cook with bottled water.

Somers still washes the dishes and bathes with the contaminated water.

"They did tell us to take five-minute baths and showers, no more than that," Somers says. "We've tried to accept it but sometimes, it just gets really frustrating."

Studies show MTBE has had little effect on air pollution in North Carolina. It spreads to ground water and wells because it is not broken down by soil. For example, a fuel spill in a simple car accident could contaminate an entire underground water supply.

The EPA announced Monday it wants to work toward alternative gas additives like ethanol.