Letter outlines MTBE investigation

Philbrick discusses action taken in Harford County

August 22, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

State Environmental Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick has mailed a four-page letter to residents of the Fallston area of Harford County stressing that the agency is continuing its investigation of the groundwater contamination that has troubled the area off and on since 1991.

The letter was mailed Thursday - two days after residents sent their own letters to U.S. Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski urging them to pressure the state for swifter investigation of the water contamination.

Philbrick's letter lists more than a dozen actions that are being taken or have been taken to address traces of the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, that has been detected in 169 wells in the vicinity of the intersection of Routes 152 and 165.

MTBE is a potentially cancer-causing chemical that has been is used in gasoline since 1979 to make it burn more cleanly. Its use was increased significantly in the early 1990s to curb air pollution in smoggy areas of the country such as Baltimore.

The state agency said an Exxon gasoline station at the intersection is at least partly responsible for the contamination.

Angry residents have complained that MDE has been slow responding to the spill. They also charged last week that the agency violated state code by not informing them of the MTBE contamination once corrective action was begun. Citizens said they first learned of the contamination in June when they read about it in newspapers.

MDE spokesman Richard J. McIntire said Philbrick's letter was not in response to the Greater Fallston Association's letter to the senators. "This is another in a series of update letters," he said Friday. He said the department's first letter to update residents on its procedures was sent June 30.

Roman Ratych, vice president of the Greater Fallston Association, said there is nothing in Philbrick's letter about cleaning up the MTBE.

"It does nothing for us," he said. "There is no difference on Aug. 20 than that day in June when we first learned of the MTBE contamination.

"We have lost confidence and trust in the Maryland Department of the Environment," he said.

In his letter, Philbrick states:

In reviewing the research on MTBE's health effects, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that there is no measurable health effect from low-level MTBE exposure, such as the levels found in wells surrounding the Exxon station.

Exxon Mobil Corp., which owns the gas station, continues to install carbon filters in homes with traces of contamination.

The department has identified other potential sources of MTBE in the area. "We have issued a Notice of Violation to a site that was dismantling heating oil tanks in a residential area," Philbrick wrote. That work has been stopped and the tanks and oil have been removed. Philbrick said the department has removed 7 tons of oil-contaminated soil from another site.

A "tracer test" at the Exxon station that is designed to detect liquid and vapor releases from underground storage systems showed that the storage tanks were tight. The test was done after the replacement or repair of 32 components that had previously shown some level of vapor release. The results of that test were reported earlier this month.

Well sampling has started on the undeveloped properties in the Del-Mar Farms housing development near the Exxon station.

The secretary also mentioned the new regulations requested by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. earlier this month that would require double-walled pipes and leak sensors on underground storage systems for new gas stations built in areas of the state where most residents get their water from wells.

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