Jacksonville faces water dilemma

Many wary of development, but gas leak has spurred concern

March 19, 2006|By LAURA BARNHARDT | LAURA BARNHARDT,SUN REPORTER

CLARIFICATION

An article in Sunday's editions about drinking water in the Jacksonville area of Baltimore County included an incomplete account of an attorney's description of carbon filtration systems for wells. Such systems are not typically recommended for use by people with compromised or undeveloped immune systems if the filtration systems do not include an ultraviolet light to reduce bacteria growth, said Mary V. Koch, a lawyer representing area residents in a class action lawsuit.

The Sun regrets the errors.

It was once considered almost sacrilegious to suggest piping city water to Jacksonville.

But that was before three tanker trucks' worth of gasoline seeped into the ground at the community's crossroads. Before cases of bottled water were stacked waist-high in pantries and basements. Before takeout coffee and shower water from the household well became causes for concern.

Now, the idea of a centralized water supply -- a community well, or the politically charged notion of municipal water -- is getting a fresh look in Jacksonville.

"Any discussion of water in Jacksonville is going to generate a great deal of debate," said Glen A. Thomas, president of the Greater Jacksonville Association. "I've heard people [speak] adamantly on all sides."

In Jacksonville, as in other areas of northern Baltimore County that rely on wells for water and septic systems for waste disposal, the traditional thinking has held that public water and sewage would be closely followed by rampant development.

"What concerns me is once there's city water, we'll soon get municipal waste. Construction will take off," said J.B. Jennings, a Republican state delegate who grew up in Jacksonville. "Then, it won't be long before Jacksonville looks like Cockeysville."

The Urban-Rural Demarcation Line -- commonly referred to as the URDL (pronounced "urdle") -- marks the outer limits of territory served by water from reservoirs owned by Baltimore City. The boundary was created in 1967 and has changed little. It has been compared to the Great Wall of China and described as a third rail of county politics.

A proposal by the County Council that would have allowed officials to adjust the line in certain cases brought "everybody to their feet," said Teresa Moore, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council, an influential land preservation group whose master plan first called for the URDL.

"There are cases where there isn't an alternative," she said. "But in general, you want to hold the line. Once development starts creeping ... it's hard to stop."

The extent of that thinking was demonstrated in the early 1980s, when some residents and businesses were contending with a smaller gasoline leak from service stations that created "plumes" of contamination and the toxic remnants of a nearby, long-abandoned Army Nike missile base. The Army agreed to pay to extend public water to nearly a dozen homes after tests showed in 1981 that the well water was contaminated by a degreasing agent that had been used at the missile site.

Although the county executive at the time supported the plan, residents adamantly opposed the extension. Ultimately, the issue became political.

A community well became the compromise. After more than a decade of using bottled water, families along Sunnybrook Road were connected to the community well in 1994.

The current discussion was prompted by the leak of about 25,000 gallons of gasoline from an Exxon station at Jarrettsville Pike and Paper Mill and Sweet Air roads. ExxonMobil has distributed bottled water as it pays for testing of wells near the station. Recent tests results showed that a residential well near the station has been contaminated with elevated levels of the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE.

In a class action lawsuit filed against ExxonMobil on Friday, the oil giant is being asked to pay for connecting residents with a new water supply, including, possibly, public water.

"It's a tough issue for people," said Mary V. Koch, one of the lawyers who filed the suit. "When you start public water, it can change zoning. It can change the entire nature of a community."

But even carbon filtration systems -- which the lawsuit also asks that ExxonMobil be ordered to provide -- have drawbacks, Koch said. Those systems require more frequent testing that can weaken water pressure from wells, and they are not typically recommended for use by people with compromised immune systems or by children whose immune systems are not fully mature, Koch said.

Howard Klein, whose family owns Klein's Family Market near the now-closed Exxon station, said all alternatives should be fully explored.

"Public water in itself isn't the evil," said Klein, vice president of the local supermarket chain.

If the public water lines were extended to Jacksonville but sewer lines were not, intense development wouldn't be possible, he said, adding that zoning regulations would also keep out unwanted construction.

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