Communities team up after gasoline leaks

Fallston and Jacksonville push for bill requiring sources of spills to cover costs


As residents of the Jacksonville area of Baltimore County struggle to cope with a massive gasoline leak threatening their wells, they are getting help and guidance from neighboring Fallston, where widespread contamination of groundwater by a gasoline additive still troubles the community.

In Jacksonville, the leak of an estimated 25,000 gallons from an Exxon service station at the junction of Jarrettsville Pike and Paper Mill and Sweet Air roads has so far been found to have contaminated one well, though more than 80 others are being checked. Six miles north, in the Upper Crossroads area of Fallston, more than 200 residential and commercial wells turned up at least traces of methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, a gasoline additive that authorities believe seeped in vapor form from the tanks of another Exxon station.

Even before word of the Jacksonville gas leak became public last month, Fallston leaders were alerted by one of their group's members that there might be a similar problem down the road. And they rushed to offer their assistance once the news broke that 25,000 gallons of unleaded had leaked from another Exxon station.

"Who wouldn't help?" asked Dr. Gene Ratych, a board member of the Greater Fallston Association and head of that Harford County community group's efforts. "What is amazing is the proximity of these two events."

Ratych offered his group's help at the first hastily called Jacksonville community meeting the night after the leak was revealed. The Harford group then began posting information about the Jacksonville leak on its Web site and set up an e-mail list to let residents there exchange information, ask questions and vent about their predicament.

"They've been great friends to us at this point," said Glen A. Thomas, president of the Greater Jacksonville Association. Thomas credited Ratych and other Fallston leaders with briefing him and other residents on the complicated technical and legal issues surrounding fuel leaks and groundwater contamination.

The cooperation took a new turn yesterday, when Ratych and another Fallston activist traveled to Annapolis to support legislation requiring that the sources of MTBE and fuel leaks be responsible for the cost of notifying everyone nearby and for testing their wells for contamination.

Ratych, a physician, and Barry Gabler, a resident who maintains the Fallston group's Web site, testified yesterday in favor of a bill sponsored by Del. A. Wade Kach, a Baltimore County Republican who represents part of the Jacksonville area. His measure, co-sponsored by other delegates in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties, would require the party responsible for contaminating groundwater to pay up to $250 for well testing to each property owner within a half-mile of the leak or spill.

Kach said he introduced the bill before the Jacksonville leak became public in response to a plea from a constituent who lives near another instance of MTBE contamination in the Parkton area. But the delegate said he had since received e-mails from Jacksonville residents complaining that they have been formally notified their wells might be contaminated, but must pay out of their own pockets to have them tested.

The bill would not apply retroactively, so in its current form it would not help Jacksonville or Fallston residents paying to have their own wells tested. Kach appealed to members of the House Environmental Matters Committee hearing the bill to do what they can to help his constituents and others facing similar groundwater threats.

Using the Fallston group's e-mail network, Gabler and Ratych had alerted Jacksonville residents to Kach's bill on the eve of the hearing and urged them to contact the delegate even if they couldn't attend.

It was Gabler who spotted the bill, and who also reported smelling gas fumes when he drove by the Jacksonville Exxon two days before state environmental officials' Feb. 21 announcement of a leak there. He sent an e-mail to Fallston residents noting that he'd seen pumping trucks, well-drilling rigs and other equipment there. The same assemblage had occupied the Upper Crossroads Exxon for months after the MTBE leak there was disclosed, until that station was permanently closed and torn down.

In the wake of the community furor over the Fallston leak in 2004, the Maryland Department of the Environment adopted emergency regulations requiring more monitoring for fuel leaks, and legislators last year enacted a measure requiring public notice to everyone living within a half-mile of a newly discovered leak.

Ratych said he hopes to cultivate allies in the Jacksonville area for efforts by Fallston area residents to tighten state regulations still more on underground fuel systems.

"I would think that the Jacksonville community hopefully will realize the political implications of this, join us and help us, with other communities, to solve these problems," he said.

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