To:       David Benish, Chief of Planning

From:    Josh Rubinstein, Groundwater Manager

Date:     August 18, 2008

RE:       ACSA Jurisdictional Area Amendment Request, Robert and Carolyn Michie Property (1066 Shadwell Station Lane, Charlottesville)


Carolyn and Robert Michie have requested inclusion in the Albemarle County Service Authority (ACSA) jurisdiction based upon contamination of their well with Methyl Tertiary-Butyl Ether (MTBE).  In May 2008, the Michies noticed a fuel taste in their well water and a black staining in their sediment filter.  Subsequent testing of the well found MTBE concentration of 0.021 mg/L.  While the MTBE concentration accounts for the taste, it does not account for the staining. 


Since no health standards exist for MTBE, staff must defer to the Board to answer the following question: in the context of the General Principles for Public Water and Sewer set out in the Albemarle Comprehensive Plan, should MTBE contaminated wells be considered “cases where public health and safety are at issue?”  The following information may be useful in answering this question.


Methyl Tertiary-Butyl Ether (MTBE) is a gasoline additive that promotes a cleaner burn.  In 2001, Virginia consumed 13,600 barrels per day of MTBE.  Since 2005, MTBE has been gradually phased out in favor of ethanol


There has been no research into the effect(s) of MTBE on humans.  Some who work in areas with high inhalation concentrations of MTBE have reported dizziness and nausea but no direct link the person’s health has been found.   At very high doses, cancers have been induced in rodents.  The research has lead to no consensus on the health effect and, therefore, EPA has issued no Health Standard for MTBE.  Humans, on the other hand, are extraordinarily sensitive to MTBE in very small amounts. In 1997, the EPA issued a Drinking Water Advisory that found that we begin to taste and smell MTBE at 0.02 to 0.04 milligrams per liter (mg/L)*.   The Michies have described the sensation as “drinking gasoline.” 


MTBE has a low absorption rate and a high dissolution rate. It travels faster and further in groundwater than any of the other volatile compounds associate with fuel.  Because of its mobility, MTBE contamination can result from a spill of as little as ten-gallons of fuel and it can be the only contaminant detected.  In the National Water Quality Assessment, the United States Geologic Survey (USGS) found that 7.5% of the 4,146 wells tested had detectable concentrations of MTBE. As part of a zero tolerance approach to any concentration of petroleum constituents in drinking water, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has supplied and operates 27 carbon filters on private wells in Albemarle County.   Seventeen are to clean water contaminated solely by MTBE.


On 7 May 1997, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors approved an amendment to the ACSA jurisdictional area to include the Key West Subdivision.  Two of the four wells serving the 228 homes in the subdivision were contaminated solely with MTBE.  Three of the six test wells had MTBE concentrations higher than the Drinking Water Advisory.  The concentrations in well 2 never exceeded 0.021 mg/L.


Eleven states have Primary Drinking Water Standards ranging from 0.01 mg/L (Delaware) to 0.24 mg/L (Mississippi).  The Code of Virginia requires quarterly testing of public water supplies for MTBE and reporting concentration above 0.015 mg/L to VDH and the DEQ.  Since these standards are based on the EPA Drinking Water Advisory, staff recommends that if the Board determines that MTBE is an issue of public health and safety under the Comprehensive Plan, that the 0.02 mg/L standard be adopted.  In the USGS study, only one percent of the contaminated wells had concentrations higher than the EPA Drinking Water Advisory standard. 


Robert and Carolyn Michie ACSA Jurisdictional Area Amendment Request


In May 2008, the Michies noticed a fuel taste in their well water and a black staining in their sediment filter, with subsequent well test finding MTBE in concentration of 0.021 mg/L.  While the MTBE concentration accounts for the taste, it does not account for the staining.  Since this concentration is so close to the Drinking Water Advisory and, since, in the case of Key West, concentrations have been shown to change over time, it is staff’s recommendation that follow-up testing be done.


The property is adjacent to the GOCO Oil Company from which DEQ has identified a gasoline plume. DEQ immediately contracted with Culligan to install and maintain a carbon filter on the Michie’s well.  DEQ approximates the cost to maintain these filters at $3000 per year.  Presently, that fee is being charged to GOCO.


During the deliberations on the Key West Subdivision ACSA Jurisdictional Amendment, carbon filtration was considered.  At that time, this solution was deemed too expensive.


* The Drinking Water Advisory states “There are over four to five orders of magnitude between the 20 to 40 micrograms per liter range and concentrations associated with observed cancer and noncancerous effects in animals.”


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