State environment chief vows fines for ExxonMobil spill

Philbrick also pledges tighter controls on state's gas stations

March 10, 2006|By TIMOTHY B. WHEELER AND LAURA BARNHARDT | TIMOTHY B. WHEELER AND LAURA BARNHARDT,SUN REPORTERS

Maryland's top environmental official pledged yesterday to impose stiff penalties on ExxonMobil Corp. and to tighten regulatory controls on service stations throughout the state in the wake of a 25,000-gallon gasoline leak in the Jacksonville area of Baltimore County.

At a news conference across from the Exxon station where the leak occurred, Kendl P. Philbrick, secretary of the state Department of the Environment, called the Jacksonville leak "catastrophic" and announced that he is ordering immediate checks of leak detection systems by all 3,500 regulated fuel tank owners in the state, to be followed by new emergency regulations that would enhance efforts to catch leaks quickly.

Later, Philbrick appeared at a contentious community meeting and told more than 500 area residents that testing of sample wells would be expanded to a half-mile radius of the Exxon station at the Four Corners intersection of Jarrettsville Pike and Paper Mill Road.

"We are quite frankly baffled as to how someone - with all the regulatory controls we have in place - can explain the release of hundreds of gallons per day that went apparently undetected, unreported and with no intervening action for over a month," Philbrick told the crowd, repeating what he had read from a prepared statement at the news conference. People who packed the meeting room at Cockeysville Middle School applauded the words - their only positive reaction during the more than two-hour session.

Exxon officials apologized for the leak and said they would take full responsibility for the cleanup.

Philbrick said at the news conference that the state is investigating possible civil and criminal action against ExxonMobil for the Jacksonville leak, one of the largest ever reported in Maryland. Gasoline apparently escaped from a punctured underground line at the rate of 675 gallons a day for 37 days before it was reported to state environmental regulators.

Though the investigation is continuing, Philbrick said "strong enforcement action" will be taken against the oil company.

Penalties could also be imposed against the dealer who operated the station under a contract with ExxonMobil, said Herbert Meade, the MDE official overseeing fuel tank regulations. But Meade said the state's preliminary investigation indicated that the station's managers maintained proper records and reported the loss of gasoline before ExxonMobil reported the leak Feb. 17.

Amid indications, reported last week in The Sun, that the Exxon station's automatic leak detection system apparently malfunctioned, Philbrick said station operators statewide would have 30 days to verify that their leak detection systems are working and report back to his agency.

MDE plans to follow up by proposing emergency regulations that would increase from annual to twice yearly required checks of leak detection systems at all gas stations in areas of the state where residents get their water from wells. Station operators also would be required to monitor their gasoline inventories more closely and report discrepancies to the state even if a leak has not been confirmed.

State officials say the leak at the Jacksonville Exxon apparently occurred Jan. 13 when a contractor accidentally punctured an underground fuel line. It was not reported to regulators until mid-February.

At last night's meeting, ExxonMobil publicly detailed for the first time various alarms that indicated a problem, beginning Jan. 13 when the regular-unleaded fuel line was hit. Jim McDonald, a regional manager of service stations for ExxonMobil, said the company initially thought a motor was causing the problem that alerted a monitoring center in Greensboro, N.C. He said the company sent officials to the station twice between Jan. 14 and Feb. 14 to inspect the station, which was passing monthly tests. None of the "message codes" indicated a leak, he said.

On Feb. 17, a manual test of fuel lines at the station showed there was a leak, and MDE was notified, McDonald said.

The company has said it is investigating why the leak was not detected sooner, and has vowed to aggressively clean up gasoline in the area.

Andrea Loiero, whom Meade identified as the station manager, referred a reporter's call to ExxonMobil.

At Cockeysville Middle School, an Exxon official said the company has no intention of reopening the station.

Residents had numerous questions for Exxon and state environmental officials, ranging from how long the cleanup would take to whether the air they breathe is being affected by the spilled gasoline.

Meade said exhaust from the vacuum trucks engaged in the cleanup is more of a hazard to breathing than the gasoline in the ground. Cleanup and testing in Jacksonville likely will continue for several years, state and company officials said.

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