Builder copes with MTBE in Harford

Firm praised for installing water filters in subdivision

October 31, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Delmar Farms in Fallston looks like any number of the upscale subdivisions that cover the Baltimore suburbs. Large brick-faced houses rise out of a one-time farm field. Sport utility vehicles and basketball hoops mark the driveways. Signs welcome buyers looking for "two-acre estate homes," which cost between $641,900 and $738,900.

But the builder and residents of the 33-home development are facing a potential problem unfamiliar to other subdivisions in the area: the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE.

Delmar Farms shares an intersection with the Exxon station suspected by Fallston residents and environmental officials to be a source of MTBE contamination in 178 nearby wells. The discovery of the additive has prompted a community outcry since spring.

Most affected homeowners are established Fallston residents, but MTBE contamination poses a different question for those buying and selling homes at Delmar Farms: How much responsibility does the builder, D.R. Horton, have for detecting, disclosing and fixing potential well contamination?

Based on its well tests - which showed isolated traces of the fuel additive - Horton decided to install water filters in every home and inform prospective buyers about the filters. The builder, one of the country's largest, also pledged not to sell any homes in which water tests positive for MTBE after being filtered.

But in a letter to county and state officials, Horton stopped short of saying it would explain the MTBE situation in Fallston to all potential buyers. County health officials, while recommending such disclosure, praised Horton's overall efforts regarding MTBE, a possible carcinogen.

State Del. Joanne S. Parrott, a Republican who represents the area and has been closely involved with the MTBE issue, said she was satisfied with Horton's response.

"It seems putting those filters on was a logical step," she said. Parrott added that she hadn't heard any complaints from homeowners or prospective buyers at Delmar Farms.

Several homeowners at the subdivision refused comment, and one said an attorney had advised homeowners not to speak about the MTBE issue. Horton officials did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

MTBE sites

Fallston is not the first place to see development collide with a rash of MTBE discoveries. In the San Francisco area, where MTBE contamination is widespread, developers have sold many upscale homes with the warning that buyers should not plant fruit trees or dig in their yards without wearing protective clothing.

In Fallston, residents and state officials have pointed to the Exxon station at Routes 152 and 165 as a likely source of MTBE contamination. But Exxon officials denied the station's culpability in a report to the state this month.

Horton conducted an environmental assessment of the property upon purchasing it in 2002. Well tests turned up one positive reading for MTBE, but it was below the level at which state officials would have ordered a cleanup.

Last year, Horton tested wells on five lots. Again, one well tested positive for MTBE but at a level below the state action mark of 20 parts per billion.

According to a summary compiled by the developer in August, Horton decided, based on the tests, to install elaborate filtration systems on every well. The developer committed to testing the filtered water at the time of sale and promised not to sell any house with water testing positive for MTBE or other hydrocarbons.

The developer also promised to inform every prospective buyer that homes would feature water filters that would need to be inspected and maintained. Finally, Horton said it would provide copies of the water-test results to every buyer at settlement.

In its most recent report in August, Horton said that none of the tests of filtered water had turned up MTBE.

Horton detailed its plans as part of a June 25 letter to county health officials.

"We would like you to concur that what we are doing is consistent with your requirements and that the dual carbon filter systems are an acceptable method of filtering MTBEs from the well water," wrote James N. Proakis, senior vice president at D.R. Horton.

The county Health Department responded in a June 28 letter that it could not force D.R. Horton to do anything different. But health officials suggested that Horton explain MTBE issues in the Fallston area to prospective buyers.

County response

Frederic J. Faulkner, a Health Department program manager, also said the developer should test raw well water as well as treated water at each lot.

The letter ended on a positive note. The Health Department "appreciates the extra measures that D.R. Horton has taken to insure potable water supplies," Faulkner wrote. "The installation of treatment equipment is unusual and pro-active."

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