Md. sues Exxon over gas leak

April 28, 2006|By TIMOTHY B. WHEELER | TIMOTHY B. WHEELER,SUN REPORTER

In the biggest environmental enforcement action in recent years in Maryland, the state filed suit yesterday seeking nearly $12 million in penalties from Exxon Mobil Corp. and a local service station operator for a major gasoline leak that officials say has fouled well water in the Jacksonville area of Baltimore County.

"We are holding those responsible accountable," Kendl P. Philbrick, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, said at a news conference at the agency's Baltimore headquarters. He called the leak, one of the largest ever in the state, "catastrophic," and said an investigation continues into whether criminal charges might be filed as well.

The 15-count civil suit, filed in Baltimore County Circuit Court, accuses the giant oil corporation and Storto Enterprises Inc., operator of the Jacksonville Exxon station, of violating state environmental laws and regulations by allowing gasoline to leak from an underground fuel line and not detecting or reporting it promptly.

The suit charges that more than 25,000 gallons of unleaded regular gas dribbled from a small hole accidentally drilled in a buried fuel line by a contractor performing maintenance at the station in mid-January. The leak was not reported to state environmental officials until Feb. 17, more than a month later, although, the lawsuit says, the station's operator noted losses of almost 700 gallons of gasoline daily during that time.

The lawsuit charges that Exxon Mobil and its operator failed to install or maintain a properly functioning leak detection system that might have confirmed the gasoline release before it became so large.

Cleaning up

In addition to penalties, the state's lawsuit asks a court to require Exxon and its operator to complete the cleanup of the gasoline that leaked - a process that, Philbrick acknowledged yesterday, could take years.

Exxon Mobil spokeswoman Betsy Eaton declined to respond to the specifics of the lawsuit, saying, "Our primary focus continues to be on the recovery and remediation of the gasoline leaked at Jacksonville." A telephone call to the Fallston address listed for Storto Enterprises was not returned.

G. Macy Nelson, a plaintiffs' environmental lawyer based in Towson who is not involved in the case, applauded the state's lawsuit. He said he couldn't think of a similar enforcement action being taken against a company.

"Historically, in my experience, MDE has gone after polluters but has done so with a very light hand," he said. "This sounds aggressive. ... Maryland has a lot of strong environmental statutes that provide effective tools, if they'll only use them."

He said the state's case is particularly strong because it is seeking penalties and needs only to show that the company has violated environmental laws, but does not, for example, have to prove damage to property.

Though only six residential and commercial wells in the Jacksonville area have been contaminated enough by gasoline or its components to exceed guidelines for safe drinking water, state officials say 62 residential wells show traces of methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, a gasoline additive that spreads readily through groundwater. Though not believed harmful at the low levels seen in almost all the wells, MTBE has caused cancer in laboratory animals.

More than 200 residential wells have been tested, and the six seriously tainted wells have been equipped with carbon filtration systems to remove the contaminants.

More than 10,600 gallons of gasoline have been recovered since the leak was discovered Feb. 16, state officials say, and perhaps another 3,000 gallons' worth of fuel vapors have been suctioned out of the ground - substantially less than the oil company had been claiming.

Philbrick said recovery efforts had been aided by Exxon's quick response once the leak was reported, by dry weather and by the area's geology, which confined the leak to a narrow band underground. The company's aggressive cleanup, however, does not absolve it, he said.

Official's vow

The legal action comes less than two months after Philbrick vowed at a news conference in Jacksonville to take strong enforcement action against Exxon Mobil. He also ordered other service stations in the state to check their leak detection systems and vowed to tighten underground fuel storage regulations to prevent any more such leaks.

How much, if anything, Exxon Mobil and Storto will have to pay in penalties will depend on whether a judge or jury finds that the companies violated state laws and regulations. The amount of penalties imposed could be set by the court, or it could be negotiated down in an out-of-court settlement.

But the law allows penalties of up to $25,000 a day for each violation, and an additional penalty of $100 per gallon for illegal releases of more than 25,000 gallons. State officials said they were seeking the maximum penalties because of the size and severity of the leak.

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