ExxonMobil faulted in wider MTBE area

October 13, 2005|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

State environmental officials said yesterday that ExxonMobil is responsible for a larger area of cleanup surrounding a now-demolished service station in Fallston believed to be the source of one of the largest incidents of well contamination in Maryland history.

In response to a March report submitted by ExxonMobil in which the company denied responsibility for about half the area around the site, the Maryland Department of the Environment directed ExxonMobil to broaden its remediation area to include the area north of the station in addition to the southern area, for which the company has already conceded responsibility.

"We basically disagree with Exxon on the area of the study," said Horacio Tablada, MDE waste management director. "They wanted to limit work to south side, and we said, `No, that's not right.'"

The former station, at routes 152 and 165 west of Bel Air in Harford County, has been suspected in the contamination of about 200 residential wells found to contain traces of methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE. The chemical is added to gasoline to make it burn cleaner and has been linked to cancer in laboratory animals, though its toxicity to humans at low levels has never been determined.

Workers demolished the station in August, just days after Congress passed an energy bill that requires oil companies to defend themselves against lawsuits stemming from the kind of MTBE leaks seen in Upper Crossroads. The contamination has prompted two class action lawsuits and state legislation addressing MTBE detection and public notification.

ExxonMobil spokeswoman Betsy Eaton declined to comment last night, saying she had not seen the state's letter, dated Tuesday and obtained by The Sun yesterday.

In April, the company maintained that contamination north of the station had come from other sources, such as 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 sought to conduct more tests to determine the extent of its culpability.

Nearby residents who have excoriated the company for its response to the contamination were informed of the letter yesterday and claimed a major victory. They had countered ExxonMobil's extensive report with their own, arguing that the station was atop a hill, and the groundwater could slide down either side.

"We've been waiting for this," said Gene Ratych, chairman of the Greater Fallston Association's MTBE task force. "I think the community feels that we were successful in showing a broader picture, rather than the narrow scope the company had presented."

Ratych said residents were concerned about who would bear the cost of cleanup in the event that the company was relieved of some responsibility. He said his organization estimates it would cost residents $2 million over the course of 10 years for measures such as water tests and purchasing carbon filters.

MDE said ExxonMobil had proposed "insufficient remedial coverage" for the site, and said additional groundwater and soil vacuum extraction wells must be installed to "ensure capture and remediation of residual hydrocarbons."

Tablada said the additional wells will be installed at different depths on the northern sector and help assess the situation through a "three-dimensional" network.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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