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Fill 'er Up: Santa Cruz's gas stations have plenty of gas--if you don't mind MTBE in the mix.


Gas Hunt

'MTBE? What's that? A disease?" Nüz overheard this comment at a recent barbecue to which Nüz showed up late, thereby missing most of the food, all because we were trying to find MTBE-free gas--a task best likened to tracking down the Unholy Grail.

Readers will recall that MTBE is a chemical added to California gasoline to reduce vehicle emissions and meet federal Clean Air Act requirements. The problem is that MTBE, nonbiodegradable and a suspected carcinogen, moves like lightning when underground gasoline storage tanks leak--thereby endangering local water supplies.

Though California asked the EPA to waive the MTBE requirement two years ago, no action has been taken. Meanwhile, Canadian-based Methanex, the largest producer of MTBE, is suing the United States government under NAFTA to the tune of $900 million, claiming that ethanol producer Archer Daniel Midlands misled California into trying to ban MTBE.

MTBE has been found at 60 sites in our county to date, a situation that prompted Supervisor Ellen Pirie to ask about banning the chemical this April. But in the end, the supes voted not to ban MTBE outright, citing fears of gasoline shortages and higher prices. Instead, they invoked the power of the marketplace to curb MTBE sales. Customers can ask dealers to get MTBE-free gas, so the argument went. "If customers do that, it won't take long for dealers to go to suppliers for MTBE-free gas, and the supply will increase," said Pirie, who promised to compile and circulate--via local newspapers--a list of gas stations carrying MTBE-free gas.

One month later, that list is still not in print--a situation that prompted Nüz to undertake an impromptu testing of Pirie's "power of the marketplace" argument.

"MTBE-free? Nowhere in California," said the clerk at the Beacon station on Mission Street, shaking her head. Meanwhile a puzzled-looking clerk at the Shell station on Ocean Street told Nüz, "We don't have it, and you're the first to ask." But Brian Neuschwander, owner of the Beach City Gas Station, also without MTBE-free gas, did offer plenty of insights.

"MTBE isn't about clean air, it's a matter of money and politics," Neuschwander said, adding that all gas stations in our county are supplied by only five Bay Area refineries. And while Tosco already supplies Union 76 stations with MTBE-free gas, Neuschwander suspected that if a MTBE boycott takes off, he would be unable to afford Tosco's prices on an open and hyped-up market.

"I'm annoyed that the county meddled in the market, by telling people to only buy from stations that sell MTBE-free gas," Neuschwander groused. "Besides, it's not as if we'd be supporting American farmers. Archer Daniel Midlands is the Exxon of the ag business, and uses pesticides and genetically engineered crops and depletes farmland."

Currently, California's 33 million residents use a total of 4 million gallons of MTBE daily to keep their 25 million registered vehicles on the road. In 1999, California, which accounts for 40 percent of the nation's MTBE market, became the first state to ban the chemical, when Gov. Gray Davis ordered an MTBE ban, which should take effect by the end of 2002.

Meanwhile, oil companies have traditionally preferred MTBE to ethanol, because it can be manufactured easily--and cheaply--at refineries and travels well, whereas ethanol is highly toxic in its pure and transportable form.

Pirie, who encourages consumers to vote over MTBE with their dollars, says, "Ethanol does less damage to ground water, and Americans need and want their cars; I'm not about to change any of that."

Watershed Dread

Lompicans worry that Redwood Empire's plans could ruin their water supply.

"They want to log in a restored forest area which comprises 60 percent or more of the watershed," says Kevin Collins, Lompico Watershed Conservancy board president. He fears that canopy removal will cause drying out, decreased creek flow and soil and sand release, and will harm steelhead rainbow trout.

On May 16, Redwood Empire applied to log half of its 425 Lompico acres, including Lompico Creek's headwaters, the area's most significant watershed.

Redwood Empire's owner, Roger Burch, has caught heat for violations of timber-harvesting permits in Gamecock Canyon and Ramsey Gulch. In a letter to Burch in 1998, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says they are "somewhat dismayed" by Burch's "excessive removal of overstory canopy" along Gamecock Canyon Creek, as well as "the cutting of unmarked trees, falling techniques, and excessively wide cable corridors." Citing a "continuing trend ... evident during last year's visit," the letter states that this "disheartening" and "troubling" situation must cease. "

A Department of Fish and Game's letter to Burch during the same period accuses him of reducing the canopy "well below the required 75 percent ... needed to maintain cool water temperatures for coho salmon and steelhead rainbow trout."

Traditionally referred to as "Islandia," the area has steep sandstone canyons and ravines full of old-growth redwoods and Douglas firs. Though Burch hasn't responded to overtures, the LWC is trying to raise funds to buy the land, appraised at about $3 million dollars--about $2.6 million more than what Burch paid six years ago. According to Collins, Burch wants at least twice the market rate. "We've made requests to larger land trusts, and they all say they can't participate unless the seller is willing, and in this case he isn't."

Fewer than 45 days of the public comment period remain on Redwood Empire's timber harvesting permit. So far support has come in the form of a strongly worded letter from Supervisor Jeff Almquist to the CDF and the formal opposition of the Lompico County Water District. LWC has also contacted Fred Keeley, hoping he can help secure state funding to buy the land. Santa Cruz Earth First! will discuss Redwood Empire machinations on May 31 at 7pm at Patagonia 415 River St., Santa Cruz.

Playhouse Fixes

The much loved 41st Avenue Playhouse closed last week, but owner George Ow promises it will reopen soon--with Gary Culver at its head. Says Ow, "Star Cinema got behind with rent. We wanted a better, local tenant. We had a good experience with Gary. He's our tenant in Scotts Valley and he turned the Aptos Twin around." The 47-year-old Playhouse will be closed for a month for repairs and to replace carpets, bathrooms, seats and projectors. Says Ow, "Gary will cater to everyone; he's used to dealing with a diverse crew in Scotts Valley."

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From the May 23-20, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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