Exxon Mobil set to present findings on MTBE to residents

Company denies blame for contamination north of Fallston-area station

April 10, 2005|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

Steve and Rita Howarth have stopped serving houseguests ice cubes in their sodas. Their neighbor Sue Hargest not only drinks bottled water, but she also washes her dishes and brushes her teeth with it.

Last year, the Fallston residents learned that their well water contained traces of a gasoline additive, methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE. Although the chemical isn't known to be harmful at the low levels found in their wells, they're taking no chances.

"I don't feel safe to drink my water," Hargest said. "It's in the back of my mind that my well water is contaminated when I'm taking a shower."

Before a permanent cleanup can occur, state and local officials must determine the source. And that could take months, if not longer.

Many residents suspect that a nearby Exxon station at Routes 152 and 165 leaked the chemical. But in a report to the state last month, Exxon Mobil Corp. denied blame for contamination north of the station.

The Maryland Department of the Environment, which is reviewing the Exxon report, will hold a meeting May 2 during which the oil company will present its findings to area residents. MDE is withholding comment on the report until then.

"There is no way that the MTBE would have moved through the groundwater to the northwest, because the water doesn't move that way," said Betsy Eaton, an Exxon spokeswoman, noting that water in the region flows southwest through cracks in the bedrock.

If the state accepts Exxon's findings, the oil company would not be responsible for cleaning up contamination north of the station. The oil company has stopped providing bottled water to residents in that area.

Exxon said the contamination north of the station comes from other sources: car accidents, former gasoline stations and widespread residential and commercial petroleum use. The company acknowledged some responsibility for contamination of about dozens of wells southwest of the station and wants to do more tests to determine the extent of its culpability.

Exxon defended its report, saying it was based on months of tests, including the use of underground cameras, and soil and groundwater samples.

MTBE is added to gasoline to make fuel burn more cleanly. It has been linked to cancer in laboratory animals, though its toxicity to humans at the low levels found in the wells has not been determined.

Fallston resident Tom Lusardi, a geologist who has studied MTBE, said Exxon was illogical in determining the station could not have leaked MTBE in wells north of the station. Because the station sits on a hill, Lusardi said that, as with just about any fluid or chemical, MTBE would have leaked in all directions initially.

"If you put a spot right at the top [of a hill] and you were to pour something on that spot, it has the potential to pour in every direction, at least very locally," said Lusardi, who lives a half-mile north of the station.

"Gravity is going to control where it flows before it gets into the bedrock," Lusardi said.

He and other residents maintain that a color-coded map depicting contaminated wells in the area suggests a gradual leak from the station in all directions.

"There's a continuous pattern all the way back to Exxon," he said. "There's not a single break."

Hargest, who lives just outside the area for which Exxon has accepted partial blame, said the level of MTBE in her drinking water is increasing, and she believes it is from the station.

"You can see the trend," she said.

Two lawsuits filed by residents against Exxon Mobil are pending in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

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