Harford oil leak draws BG&E into big cleanup job

November 22, 1992|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

It all sounded so simple.

A 200,000-gallon, underground pool of oil covering the equivalent of five football fields could be removed using wells and pumps, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. told the residents.

The 15-minute explanation of how the utility planned to clean up the oil beneath BG&E's Perryman power plant seemed to reassure the 75 retirees, professionals, farmers and Aberdeen Proving Ground workers.

But most of the residents of Harford County's Perryman and Forest Greens communities who listened to the presentation at a recent meeting heard only part of the story behind one of the largest underground oil leaks in Maryland history.

Consider:

* Wells and pumps to be installed early next year can recover only 35 percent to 40 percent of the oil.

* BG&E's nearly 1 million electric customers will pay for the cleanup, which will take at least five years. The estimated cost now stands at $1.3 million to $1.8 million, excluding soil cleanup and long-term monitoring of the site, which could double the price tag.

* The Perryman leak, reported to the Maryland Department of the Environment in November 1991 but not revealed to the residents until June of this year, was not the first time BG&E had released a large amount of oil underground. BG&E found the Perryman leak after the utility tested underground piping at all its power plants following the 1988 discovery of the other leak -- at the Crane power plant in eastern Baltimore County.

* More than a year before discovery of the Perryman leak, the state the Department of Natural Resources and six other state agencies had urged BG&E to sample ground water to detect oil leaks and to devise a plan to clean up oil from an underground pipeline leak. The recommendations came in a report on a planned expansion of the Perryman plant.

No one knows when the Perryman leak began. The culprit, a small rock, caused an eighth-inch hole in a 20-year-old steel pipe. Today, much of the oil that trickled from the hole floats atop the water table 17 feet underground.BG&E has spent months mapping the contamination, and utility officials say the plume poses no risk of contaminating private drinking-water wells or the nearby Bush River any time soon.

In the Perryman area, an estimated 800 households along the eastern shore of the Bush rely on domestic wells -- all of them at least a half-mile from the oil plume. With ground water in the area flowing at 25 to 585 feet a year, BG&E and state officials say, it would take at least several decades for the oil to reach the Bush River or domestic wells.

"If you have to have oil in the ground, this is not a bad spot," said Keith S. Wesselman, a BG&E environmental scientist. "We're not impacting our neighbors whatsoever."

At least not yet, said Harford County Councilman Robert S. Wagner, who fears the oil could eventually foul underground drinking-water supplies or the Bush River.

'The bottom line'

"The bottom line is that the plume is moving in the direction of the Bush River, however slowly," said the Republican, whose district includes the Perryman area.

The Perryman leak bears a striking resemblance to the Baltimore County leak, which also occurred over an unknown period.

In February 1988, BG&E discovered that as much as 165,000 gallons of oil had leaked from an underground pipe at the Crane plant sometime before 1970. The company has begun the slow process of pumping that oil out of the ground.

Major oil leaks at the two power plants -- and work at other plants to prevent similar leaks -- will cost BG&E ratepayers nearly $5 million.

That includes the cost of putting underground piping at the Perryman and Crane plants above ground, which has been completed, and similar work at a number of other power plants, )) so leaks can be seen.

"The whole thing began with the Crane experience," said John Metzger, a BG&E spokesman.

Mr. Metzger acknowledged that the utility checked for leaks in the 3,000 feet of underground piping at the Perryman plant only after finding the Crane leak in 1988.

Mr. Metzger and other BG&E officials stressed that no state or federal regulations require testing of underground pipes associated with above-ground oil-storage tanks. BG&E officials said the Perryman and Crane leaks should be considered the cost of doing business.

"It's simply considered normal wear and tear on the plant," Mr. Metzger said.

'Accidents happen'

"Accidents happen in any business," agreed Harry Yarnell, an officer in the association that represents the adjoining communities.

Most residents live a mile or more from the site, Mr. Yarnell said, adding, "It's out of sight, out of mind."

Residents commend BG&E for being candid about the leak and say they have a good relationship with the utility, Harford's largest single taxpayer. The company paid nearly $3 million in taxes to the county in the last fiscal year.

In August, BG&E provided a $60,000 grant toward the purchase of a 145-acre community park and nature preserve less than a mile north of the oil plume.

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