Community group revives to take on Harford MTBE issue

Neighborhood unites for contamination case

August 01, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The Cross Country Estates Community Association existed before the fuel additive MTBE was found in wells around the Fallston area. But just barely.

The group had not met in 10 years and had stopped collecting its $10-a-year membership fee. Then, word spread that possible carcinogens had popped up in Fallston-area wells, and neighbors suddenly saw a need to be more than a collection of stray voices.

So last month they reactivated the association, which represents a pocket of 28 homes near an Exxon service station suspected of being a source of methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, contamination.

The group has held several forums, helped develop a Web site about MTBE and begun forging ties with other neighborhood associations in Fallston.

"We realized our most potent vehicle was enjoining the entire community," said Gene Ratych, who is leading the association's battle on MTBE. "Rather than enter a period of panic disarray, we are moving toward a direction of organization and power."

Tom Lusardi, an environmental engineer who lives slightly more than a half-mile from the station, said he has been impressed with all the association has accomplished since its rebirth.

"That group has probably been the most organized and effective at reaching people in the community who can offer expertise," he said.

Elected officials, who have watched neighborhood associations languish in obscurity for much of the past decade, have also taken notice.

"They're functioning, even though they were just reborn, as if they've been functioning for a long time," said state Del. Joanne S. Parrott, a Republican who represents the Fallston area. "They're really doing an excellent job of getting information to people in the neighborhoods and of posing important questions to the elected officials."

Parrott attended the association's meeting Wednesday and promised to pose some of the group's questions to state and Exxon Mobil officials. County Council member Veronica "Roni" L. Chenowith also attended the meeting and said she thinks community associations can be key to settling the MTBE issue.

"The squeaky wheel gets the attention," she said. "If you have a group of people approaching in a rational and responsible manner, I think that's how you solve problems."

The first tests detecting MTBE in Fallston-area wells became public in June. State environmental officials said they suspected the Exxon station at Routes 152 and 165 as a likely source, but initial tests found no fuel leaks at the station.

Exxon Mobil continued well tests in a half-mile radius around the station and installed filters at homes where MTBE was detected. At least 127 wells have tested positive for MTBE, with 10 testing above the state-permitted concentration of 20 parts per billion.

Even as the test area has expanded and private tests have turned up traces of MTBE nearly a mile away, officials from the Harford County Health Department have said the MTBE levels found are probably harmless.

Many neighbors aren't accepting that reasoning and their mistrust is at the heart of the renewed activism.

"We have an intelligent, educated community that can challenge the explanations being offered," said Ratych, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "We see ourselves as a community in crisis. We feel our health and safety have been compromised."

Lusardi, who said he has dealt with MTBE contamination on behalf of corporations, criticized the Maryland Department of the Environment for not temporarily closing the Exxon station. He said community activism would not be necessary if the department was more aggressive, but he added, "This problem is going to have to be solved politically, because the technical arguments are going nowhere."

At Wednesday night's meeting, association members said they wondered how health officials can be sure wells are safe when 20 other states have banned MTBE.

Ratych said his group, which has pushed state and local officials to close the Exxon station, may soon call for a statewide ban on MTBE. They are also asking local and state leaders to fund an epidemiological study of possible MTBE effects on the area, an idea Parrott and others praised Wednesday.

The association is creating links with at least five other neighborhood groups and with the government-appointed Fallston Community Council. More than 130 people are now on the e-mail list at uppercross, the MTBE information Web site started a month ago by a concerned citizen named Barry Gabler.

"I think it takes crises like this to get the community associations together," Ratych said. "But we want to become the moving force in the community."

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