State claims MTBE action

Environment chief seeks to quell fears over leaks

Addresses Harford residents

Department drafting rules to tighten safeguards

September 19, 2004|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Seeking to quell public anger over the state's handling of residential well contamination in the Fallston area of Harford County, Maryland's top environmental official assured residents yesterday that his agency is moving to stop future leaks of the gasoline additive now found to be tainting about 250 wells in the area.

"I'm as frustrated as you are with the problem," said state Environment Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick, whose home is within a half-mile of the Exxon service station suspected of being a major source of the contamination. His well shows no traces of methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, although he acknowledged there is no guarantee it will stay pollution-free.

Philbrick's appearance at a forum sponsored by the Greater Fallston Association was his first since MTBE problems in the area came to light in June. It came after residents and civic leaders had complained about being ignored by state officials and demanded a federal investigation of the agency.

The environment secretary said his department is drafting regulations aimed at tightening safeguards statewide against groundwater contamination from leaking underground fuel storage tanks.

He also said his agency would see that Exxon Mobil Corp. cleans up whatever might have leaked from the station it owns at Routes 152 and 165, although he cautioned that there are bound to be other sources of MTBE in the area, given the extent of well contamination.

"I assure you my department is paying attention to what's going on here," Philbrick told an orderly but skeptical crowd of more than 100 who gathered at Fallston High School. "We're doing the best we can."

Many remained unconvinced, especially because Philbrick declined to talk about why state officials had not done more in the 1990s when MTBE began turning up in wells at the Exxon and other nearby gas stations. Residents also fault the agency for failing to alert the public to the problem until a few months ago.

"Secretary Philbrick doesn't want to talk about the past, but [the state] dropped the ball," said Carl Morgan, who runs an antique auto parts business behind the Exxon station. Official samples show that MTBE levels in the well on his property have climbed in recent weeks from 346 parts per billion to 411 parts per billion -- many times the level at which state officials recommend filtering the water or using another source.

MTBE has been added to gasoline since the early 1990s to help it burn more cleanly and combat air pollution, but it has become a widespread contaminant of groundwater, mainly from leaking underground storage tanks.

Although its health effects are unknown when consumed at low levels in drinking water, it has caused cancer in laboratory animals at high doses. The state has set an "action level" of 20 parts per billion, the threshold at which many people can taste or smell the chemical.

Of 351 wells sampled by Exxon Mobil within a half-mile of the Upper Crossroads Exxon and in adjoining neighborhoods, 177 have shown at least traces of MTBE. Eleven show more than 20 parts per billion. The oil company has furnished bottled water to those residents and has installed carbon filtration systems on all contaminated wells.

Residents learned yesterday that another 80 wells outside of the area immediately around the Exxon station also have traces of MTBE, with six of those showing significant contamination at or above the action level. All those wells were tested either by the Harford County Health Department or by homeowners.

Amid recent reports of leaks at another Fallston area gas station and at a 7-Eleven in Aberdeen, Dr. Andrew Bernstein, the county's health officer, said his staff is checking all of the more than 100 gas stations in Harford to see how many might have MTBE contamination.

Breaking publicly with the state's stance, the county health officer said he believes the Exxon at Upper Crossroads and any other station with a suspected MTBE leak ought to be shut down until the problem can be found and fixed. He also contended that the state agency lacks the manpower and legal authority to address the problem.

The Harford County Council recently imposed a 180-day moratorium on new gas stations, to give county officials time to study new zoning laws and regulations that might keep fuel facilities away from areas dependent on well water. A few county legislators have vowed to push for a ban or phaseout of MTBE in gasoline statewide.

Philbrick defended his department's handling of the issue, although he balked at questions about how state officials had responded before this summer to evidence of contamination at the Upper Crossroads Exxon and other nearby gas stations. He pointed out that MTBE levels beneath the Exxon station have dropped significantly since the company installed equipment this summer to draw fuel vapors out of the ground.

"We're not going to sit up here and justify what happened and didn't happen before," the environment secretary said. Asked as he left the meeting why he would not answer all the residents' questions, he said, "I think there are some people in here looking for some heads or some blood."

Steven J. Scheinin, president of the Greater Fallston Association, said the civic group's leaders required residents to submit their questions in writing so that the more accusatory ones could be screened out. While he said he was glad Philbrick was willing to meet with the community and answer many questions, he said Philbrick's refusal to account for the agency's past actions was "not acceptable."

Attendance at the forum was far below the standing-room-only crowds that packed meetings this summer. Civic leaders attributed the drop-off to the stormy weather, which caused the high school auditorium lights to flicker. An anti-MTBE rally planned to follow yesterday's forum was postponed until Saturday.

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