Council expects packed house

Safety of drinking water, residential growth at issue in measures up for review

Public hearings slated Tuesday

One bill seeks moratorium on building gas stations

September 05, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Residents are expected to pack the Harford County Council chambers in Bel Air Tuesday for hearings on bills dealing with safe drinking water in areas recently troubled by chemically tainted wells and a proposal that opponents fear could open the door to more development.

The first hearing - for which county officials are setting up a closed-circuit telecast in the council building's lobby to handle the overflow - will focus on two bills that would establish a moratorium on construction of gas stations in the county.

The legislation is intended to stop the building of new stations until regulations are changed to prevent the type of gas leak that has contaminated wells of 169 homes in the Upper Crossroads area with a potentially cancer-causing chemical.

An unrelated measure also drawing concern - and submitted at the request of the county administration - seeks to extend public sewer service beyond the county's designated development envelope to a triangle-shaped region bounded roughly by Mountain, Harford and Belair roads.

The gas station bills, in particular, are likely to draw a heavy turnout, according to Council President Robert S. Wagner, prompted by concern over wells tainted by methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, a chemical used in gasoline to help it burn cleaner and reduce air pollution.

"Interest has grown in the MTBE issue over the past couple of weeks as more contamination sites have been identified," Wagner said.

Citizens of the Upper Crossroads section of Fallston first learned of the MTBE contamination of their wells in June. Later the same month, The Sun reported that the Fallston Presbyterian Church and preschool, on Route 152 about five miles from the Upper Crossroads site, had levels of MTBE in its water.

Last week, state officials identified fuel tanks at a 7-Eleven convenience store in Aberdeen as a potential source of an MTBE leak into the town's public water system.

Katy Hood is one of those who plan to testify in favor of the moratorium.

"The MTBE leaks have got to be addressed," said Hood, who lives on Derby Drive, about three-quarters of a mile from an Exxon station at Routes 152 and 165 that is the prime suspect in the contamination of wells in Upper Crossroads.

Hood said she paid $200 to have her well tested about three months ago. The test showed no traces of MTBE in her drinking water. But, more recently, she said, neighbors on each side of her have found the chemical in their water.

Illness feared

Hood's primary concern is her 9-year-old handicapped daughter, who suffers from several conditions, including Down syndrome.

"MTBE can cause cancer," said Hood, who added she will have to pay for a water test every three months. "The risk might not be great in most people, but my daughter has a low immune system. I don't need her to get any type of cancer from drinking water."

Roman Ratych, vice president of the Greater Fallston Association, said, "Our position is that we support any or all bills that will assist with the prevention of MTBE contamination of well water in Harford County.

"We are not taking a position on one bill and not the other," he said.

He was referring to a bill introduced by Councilwoman Veronica L. Chenowith, who represents the Fallston area, and a second, broader, proposal introduced by Councilwoman Cecelia M. Stepp and Councilman Robert G. Cassilly.

Both bills would halt the construction of gasoline stations in the county until protective measures were taken to prevent future leaks. While Chenowith's bill deals primarily with the Upper Crossroads leak, the Cassilly and Stepp bill would seek to protect water systems throughout the county, including Winters Run, which supplies water to Bel Air.

It would also seek to keep chemical plants and other sources of contamination away from wells, such as those in Aberdeen, that supply public water systems.

"It is time that Harford County protects its water supply the way that Baltimore protects the Loch Raven Reservoir," Cassilly said.

Paul Fiore, director of government affairs for the Washington, Maryland, Delaware Service Stations and Automotive Repair Association, said the trade group had not determined whether it would testify at the hearing. He said he is confident that key people in the state are looking at the MTBE problems in the county and that the right thing will be done.

Though the majority of people testifying on the gas station moratorium bills are expected to be in favor of the proposed legislation, there is at least some community opposition to the administration bill that would extend the public sewer line beyond the development envelope.

The intention is to bring public sewerage to areas that have failing septic systems, said Nancy Giorno, deputy county attorney. She said that most of the property in the designated region is zoned R-2, which is consistent with properties on public sewerage.

Some residents disagree with the need for an extension of sewerage.

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