State releases map of MTBE-tainted wells in Harford County

MDE says Exxon station at least partly responsible

July 04, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

In a policy shift, the Maryland Department of the Environment has released a map of the properties in the Upper Crossroads area of Harford County where wells have been contaminated by a potentially cancer-causing chemical and it is now saying it has determined that the Exxon gas station there is at least partly responsible for the problem.

The map shows the level of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) at designated properties. It also shows that some wells have been tested beyond a half-mile radius of the Exxon station at Routes 152 and 165, the suspected source of the contamination.

"It was a privacy issue," said Richard McIntire, a spokesman for MDE, as a reason for not releasing the map earlier. "A lot of people wanted to see the map, including the press. But some people did not want their personal information out. We were trying to respect people's personal privacy rights."

That policy changed last week after MDE received a decision from the attorney general's office that the information should be made public.

"It should have been released," said Del. Joanne S. Parrott, a Republican who represents the Upper Crossroads area. "It's public information, and the people wanted to know what was happening in their neighborhood."

The disclosure that the state agency believes the gas station is at least partly responsible for the situation came in a letter that began "Dear Concerned Citizens" from MDE Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick that was sent Wednesday.

"MDE has determined that Exxon Mobil is as least partly responsible for the MTBE being found in the ground water in this area, although other potential sources are being investigated," Philbrick wrote.

Previously, the department said the source of the MTBE leak had not been determined and that no gasoline leaks had been detected at the station.

In a third move to increase the availability of information, MDE made public a chronology of monitoring and corrective activities taken at the station. The chronology concludes with a deadline for the start of a corrective action plan by the middle of this month.

MTBE is an additive used to make gasoline burn more cleanly. Since 1990, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has required its use in gas sold in states such as Maryland that have a summertime ozone pollution problem.

Although the EPA says there are no studies of the effects of drinking MTBE-contaminated water, it has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals at high doses in inhalation studies. The federal agency does not recommend drinking water with more than 20 parts per billion of MTBE.

Exxon has been paying for the installation of water filtration systems in homes in Upper Crossroads that show even small traces of MTBE.

The installation of the expensive equipment - one homeowner put the price at $6,000 - does not immediately end the water problems or the concerns of area residents.

Nearly three weeks have passed since Rita Howarth, her husband and their three children have had a drink of water from the faucet.

Their dependence on bottled water may continue for another two or three weeks even though they have had a filtration system installed in their home on Haddon Hurst Court.

"We had a system installed on Wednesday," Howarth said. "But the guys with the company that installed it told us not to drink the water."

"They said, `Don't drink it until [the water] is tested again.' That may be next week or later," she said. "Then we have to wait until the test results come back. I don't know when we are going to be able to use the water in the house again, and it's not going to be a comfortable feeling when we're told it's OK."

Howarth said her well was tested at 0.69 parts per billion of MTBE contamination. This was one of the lowest readings of the 84 wells surrounding the gas station that have tested positive for MTBE.

She said the contamination varies greatly from home to home in her neighborhood. "The reading at the house across the street is 10 times higher than mine," she said. "Down the road its 30 times higher."

Howarth is not comfortable with plans by the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Harford County Health Department to have wells tested every month until traces of the potentially cancer-causing chemical disappear, and then have them tested quarterly.

"How do I know the filter is still doing its thing?" she asked.

As an indication of their concern about water safety, Howarth said, her children found a toad in the back yard last week and gave it bottled water to drink.

What is MTBE?

MTBE is a gasoline additive that was introduced in the 1970s to improve engine performance as an anti-knock or octane-enhancing compound and to assist in the replacement of leaded gasoline.

The amount of MTBE used in gasoline was increased in the 1990s as a result of requirements of the federal Clean Air Act to improve air quality.

Today, MTBE is 11 percent to 15 percent by volume of the gasoline used in Maryland.

More information can be found at mde.state.md.us/Programs/LandPrograms/Ha zardous_Waste/mtbe_update/index.asp - Maryland Department of the Environment

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