updated 7/21/2005 8:54:23 PM ET 2005-07-22T00:54:23

Twenty-one senators asked the Environmental Protection Agency for more information Thursday about an internal paper that reportedly concludes that the gasoline additive MTBE may cause cancer.

Key elements of the document, which has not been made public, surfaced as lawmakers considered whether to shield the makers of MTBE from product liability lawsuits as a result drinking water contamination in at least 36 states.

MTBE, which was put into gasoline to cut air pollution, has been banned in several states because of complaints that it adds a foul smell and turpentine-like taste to drinking water when it leaks into water supplies.

But the draft EPA paper, described as a preliminary document that has not been peer-reviewed, raises broader health concerns from MTBE than widely assumed, according to opponents of the proposed liability shield.

“This is extremely troubling and certainly merits further investigation and review,” said the senators — 19 Democrats, one Republican and one independent — in a letter sent Thursday to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.

The draft document calls MTBE a likely carcinogen, according to a trade publication, Inside EPA.

EPA officials do not dispute that characterization. But EPA spokeswoman Eryn Witcher said the draft paper reflects “incomplete information” developed early in the MTBE review process and has yet to undergo internal or external peer reviews.

“This draft should not be construed to represent any agency determination or policy,” said Witcher. She said the paper is part of a broader assessment of MTBE’s risks that won’t be completed for another year or more.

The senators said they want to know more about “what findings EPA is anticipating to make,” since decisions are being made now in Congress over phasing out MTBE and whether to give liability immunity to its manufactures.

“If ingestion of MTBE is determined to cause adverse human health effects, such as cancer, it is imperative that we have that information,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wrote the EPA. Twenty other senators — including many from the Northeast, where MTBE water contamination has been a particular concern — also signed the letter.

“The possibility that MTBE could have harmful health effects highlights the urgency of implementing an alternative to its use,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, the only GOP lawmaker to sign the letter.

MTBE has been the subject of more than 150 lawsuits around the country because of concern about billions of dollars in cleanup costs after it gets into drinking water supplies. While the additive causes a foul smell and taste at even small concentrations, its impact on health has not been determined.

At high concentrations, MTBE has been found to cause cancer in laboratory mice. As a result, the EPA said years ago the additive could be a human carcinogen, but has not gone beyond that. MTBE is not regulated by the agency.

Meanwhile, intense discussions are underway to try to put together a compromise on MTBE as part of a broad energy bill lawmakers are hoping to complete before the August congressional recess.

A provision that has been pushed by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and GOP Rep. Joe Barton, chairman of the House-Senate conference negotiating a final energy bill, would protect MTBE makers against product liability lawsuits.

Both DeLay and Barton are from Texas, home of the biggest MTBE makers, including major oil companies.

Many senators, however, have vowed to block any legislation that contains such a liability shield for the MTBE industry.

Barton said Thursday he’s close to putting together a compromise that would establish a new federal cleanup fund for water contaminated by MTBE. But he also has insisted liability protection be part of the package.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who is leading the Senate negotiators, said he has yet to see an MTBE proposal that will not prompt a filibuster in the Senate — something that could doom the energy legislation altogether.

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