Residents file lawsuit against Exxon in leak

Operator of Jacksonville gas station also a defendant


A class action lawsuit was filed yesterday on behalf of homeowners and residents in the Jacksonville area of Baltimore County, alleging that negligence by ExxonMobil Corp. and a service station operator led to a huge gasoline leak that threatens the area's drinking water.

In addition to punitive damages of $535 million, the lawsuit asks that ExxonMobil be required to clean up the contamination and pay for well testing and the cost of connecting affected residents and businesses to an alternative water supply or the costs of carbon filtration systems.

The damages sought take into account "what happened, the value of homes in Jacksonville and number of people who will likely be affected," said Mary V. Koch, a lawyer with the law firm of Peter G. Angelos, who filed the suit.

State environmental officials have said they believe the leak began in mid-January, when a contractor performing routine maintenance on the underground fuel storage system unwittingly drilled a pencil-sized hole in the buried fiberglass pipe carrying unleaded regular to the station's gas pumps. An environmental official has said an electronic leak-detection system apparently was not working.

But officials have noted that Maryland regulations require station operators to manually check gas inventories daily and promptly investigate any discrepancies. Gasoline apparently escaped at the rate of 675 gallons a day for 37 days before it was reported to state environmental regulators Feb. 17.

State environmental officials have said they will take "strong enforcement action" against ExxonMobil for the leak, one of the largest ever reported in Maryland.

One residential well near the service station tested positive for elevated levels of a gasoline additive, methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, this month.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said the suit was filed late yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court. Koch said the firm filed the lawsuit now, rather than waiting for more test results and for experts to predict how far the gasoline is likely to spread, so that the firm can be "active in the investigation."

"I feel more comfortable with my own people collecting data," she said, adding that when the company removes the tanks and pipes -- activity set for next week -- experts hired by the lawyers will be present.

Betsy Eaton, a spokeswoman for ExxonMobil, declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the company had not reviewed it. But, she said, "The lawsuit is not going to distract us from our primary focus, which is to use all available resources to clean up and remediate the gasoline that leaked into the ground in Jacksonville."

Also named as a defendant in the suit was Storto Enterprises, identified as the operator of station, which is at the corner of Jarrettsville Pike and Paper Mill and Sweet Air roads. Attempts to obtain comment last night from the operators were not successful.

Three residents are named as plaintiffs, but they were not identified because lawyers provided a redacted copy of the lawsuit yesterday.

Koch said she was withholding the names to give the plaintiffs the "weekend to prepare themselves" for questions from neighbors and reporters. "This has been an extremely emotional and stressful time for them. It's just very upsetting."

She said the three plaintiffs were representative of many others in Jacksonville who are worried about the effects of the gasoline leak. "People feel helpless because there's not much you can do."

The Angelos law firm has been advertising in local newspapers in recent days, and lawyers, including a hydrogeologist, have been meeting with some residents and business owners.

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