Trying to get through the public's perception

Jacksonville gasoline leak led to cautious buyers


At Jack's Shack, many customers order the barbecue or the wings - after they get one question out of the way.

Since thousands of gallons of gasoline leaked into the ground several months ago, many first want to know the level of gasoline additives in the Jacksonville carryout's water, owner Jack Stewart said.

"It really upsets me with what's going on," said Stewart, who says the methyl tertiary butyl ether in his well water is 3 parts per billion, well below the state action level of 20 parts per billion and safe to drink. "We're trying to get through this. It's more of a perception in the community."

With many area businesses feeling a financial sting since the gasoline spill, about a dozen businesses, as they have many times over the years, donated time or materials yesterday for a cleanup project. This one, at the community's senior center, was also meant to give the area a little boost.

Wearing T-shirts with "Long & Foster" emblazoned across their chests, more than a dozen people volunteered to paint and spruce up the senior center.

"I'm just trying to bring some positive attention to Jacksonville," said Evelyn McKenny, a Long & Foster official and an organizer of yesterday's event.

McKenny said homes continue to be sold in the area - but at a slower rate.

Stewart said the cleanup was a show of solidarity.

"Even though what happened happened, we'll stick together and pull through together as a community," he said.

In February, about 25,000 gallons of gasoline seeped from an Exxon service station, contaminating groundwater in the Jacksonville area.

Most businesses in the area near the spill say their water has not tested positive for high levels of MTBE, but public perception has tainted sales.

Craig Muckle, a spokesman for Safeway, said the grocery chain's store in Jacksonville had a "slight impact" in sales about 30 days after the leak and customers initially had questions. He said the store "sporadically still receives questions but nothing like it was."

He said a noticeable spike in the amount of bottled water sold at the store followed the gas leak.

"It's not as busy as last year," said manager Rob Norris.

He said he wasn't completely sure business was slow because of the gas spill, but he quickly added that "if you put two and two together, what do you think?"

He said his bottled drinks are selling about two times as much as last year.

Jack Stewart said his business is improving but he has seen a 10 percent decline in profit from last year.

"When you run a small business with a 50 percent profit margin, 10 percent is noticeable," he said.

About a month after the gas spill, area merchants formed the Jacksonville Business Coalition to discuss the spill, its ramifications and possible future alternative water sources.

Heidi Hildreth runs Heidi's Hair Connection and has attended the coalition meetings. Her hair salon is in a shopping center about a block from the Exxon. She and her son donated paint used in yesterday's senior center cleaning.

Although her water has never tested high for MTBE, she said her business declined by 20 percent to 30 percent when word of the spill spread among the community.

"We actually had a client come in and wouldn't get her hair shampooed - she just got her hair cut," Hildreth said. "No matter how much we tell them the water is fine, if the customer doesn't feel comfortable, you can't change their minds."

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