Many more underground leaks feared

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

Regulators know of about a dozen major underground oil leaks around the country, and more are suspected, said John M. Cunningham, chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Oil Pollution and Abatement Section.

"We're working to characterize the scope of the problem," he said.

Star Enterprise, a Texaco Inc. and Saudi Aramco oil storage and distribution facility in Fairfax City, Va., recently agreed to pay about $50 million to settle medical and damage claims by nearly 200 families who say their neighborhood has been fouled by at least 100,000 gallons of oil that leaked underground.

The company also agreed to make up for any reductions in the value of 450 homes near the leak.

What is thought to be Maryland's largest underground oil plume covers nearly all of Exxon's 25-acre bulk petroleum storage site in Baltimore's Canton section. The site has been used since the 1860s for manufacture and storage of a variety of petroleum products. Exxon began pumping out the oil in 1983. The plume is continuing to foul the Baltimore Harbor, but the oil is not thought to be endangering residents.

About 160,000 gallons of oil has been recovered so far, and state officials say pumping will continue for another five years.

What may be the worst underground oil leak in U.S. history -- as much as 15 million gallons -- lies beneath Brooklyn, N.Y. Mobil Oil, which operated a refinery there, has agreed to undertake the long, multimillion-dollar cleanup.

Large underground oil plumes also have been discovered in Indiana, TexasCalifornia and elsewhere.

Such leaks do not evoke the same national outrage as catastrophic surface-water spills, such as that from the tanker Valdez in 1989, when nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the pristine waters of Alaska's Prince William Sound, fouling beaches and killing wildlife.

"We've been looking at surface-water spills for years because they are visible," said David Nielson, whose Galena, Ohio, company specializes in the cleanup of underground petroleum contamination.

But underground leaks can be far more expensive and time-consuming to clean up, said Boston science writer T. M. Hawley, former editor of the newsletter Oil Pollution Bulletin.

With half of the nation drawing its drinking water from underground sources, leaks can have potentially devastating effects. They can result in the pollution of rivers and other surface waters fed by ground water. Sometimes, the leaks produce dangerous fumes that can seep into homes or buildings.

The EPA has estimated that environmental damage done by petroleum products leaking underground will cost taxpayers and industry nationwide about $35 billion.

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