Harford Co. community residents call for state ban on gas additive

Dozens rally against MTBE found in wells

September 26, 2004|By Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | Nancy Jones-Bonbrest,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Dozens of Fallston residents concerned about the safety of their well water banded together yesterday, urging Maryland to ban a gasoline additive that has contaminated local groundwater.

Organizers held a rally just west of an Exxon service station at Routes 165 and 152 in Harford County, where the state has been investigating a number of vapor leaks of methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE.

"This is really a problem, and we need it banned, just as other states have done," said Pat Schenk, a member of the Greater Fallston Community Association, which organized the event. "But it's not going to happen without a lot of people supporting it and without a lot of public outcry."

But the rally was not a day for angry protests. Instead, it focused on providing educational material, information on letter-writing campaigns to elected officials and information from vendors of clean water treatments.

"It's about education and publicity to keep the word out that MTBE is poisoning our wells," said Steven J. Scheinin, president of the community association. "And in our opinion, the Maryland Department of the Environment and the governor are not doing enough."

In June, residents and business owners in the Upper Crossroads area of Fallston learned that many area wells were contaminated with MTBE, a chemical that replaced lead in gasoline in the 1980s to reduce carbon monoxide emissions from vehicles. Health effects in drinking water are unknown, but even at very low levels it can be undrinkable because of a harsh taste and smell.

State officials have proposed regulations that include frequent testing, double-walled pipes for underground tanks and built-in sensors. But area residents say the proposals do not go far enough, and they want the chemical banned. At least 17 states, including California and New York, have done so.

"Our position is zero tolerance," Scheinin said. "There should be no MTBE in the water at all."

Scheinin spoke at the rally along with Judy Blomquist, the president of Friends of Harford, and Richard Norling of the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Exxon tested wells within a half-mile radius and has supplied bottled drinking water and filtration systems to those homes where MTBE was detected in the water. But several residents outside the area have paid to have their wells tested, with varying levels of the additive found.

"This is an issue that is becoming more and more widespread here," said Diane Siemek, who lives less than one mile from the test area. "But I think we have to be careful with what they replace it with. If they begin to use ethanol, how safe is that?"

Richard and Pat Siejack, who live within one mile of the focus area, had their well tested. When low levels of MTBE were discovered, they switched to bottled water.

"It's an inconvenience," Pat Siejack said. "It seems to be no rhyme or reason where this is going in the water table."

When asked if they would write letters to their elected officials in favor of banning MTBE, they said they would.

"I think if we don't, we are not proactive; we are just sitting there saying, `Why didn't someone do something about this?'" Richard Siejack said. "We must band together as a community."

Carl Morgan, who owns a classic car repair shop in Upper Crossroads and an adjacent residential rental unit, says the problem needs to be fixed. The rental unit has remained empty since June.

The state-accepted level of MTBE is 20 parts per billion. The level found at Morgan's property was in the 400s. "We are sensible people trying to go about this in a reasonable way," Morgan said. "But they need to keep it in their tanks. It doesn't belong in my well."

Many say getting accurate information has been frustrating.

"State and local agencies have known this problem has existed in many parts of Harford County for years, and they did not take action," said Beth Scheir, a resident of the Cross Country Estates, which is within a half-mile radius of the Exxon service station.

"What upsets me the most is the lack of information and misinformation supplied by those agencies that we pay with our tax dollars. That's what really makes me angry," she said.

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