Old leaks may bring new alerts

Md. considers expanding fuel-spill notifications

July 23, 2006|By TIMOTHY B. WHEELER | TIMOTHY B. WHEELER,SUN REPORTER

Facing criticism from community activists about lurking threats to their drinking water, state officials are considering notifying thousands of residents throughout central Maryland about old underground gasoline leaks that could contaminate nearby wells.

Officials of the state Department of the Environment said last week that the notifications, which could begin in the fall, would go beyond a leak disclosure law. That law, which took effect 10 months ago, requires authorities to inform neighbors when high levels of harmful gasoline ingredients are discovered in groundwater or soil.

As a result of the law, the state environmental agency and county health departments have alerted neighboring residents of 10 newly discovered fuel leaks since Oct. 1, all but one in the Baltimore suburbs.

Those cases -- four in Baltimore County, three in Harford County, two in Carroll County and one in Frederick County -- represent a small fraction of the total number of fuel leaks being investigated and cleaned up around the state. MDE has more than 2,000 underground contamination cases pending, according to a database on the department's Web site.

Residents in Baltimore and Harford counties have been surprised and upset to learn of earlier gas leaks that also could pose threats to neighboring residential wells. Parkton residents, for instance, found out recently about a cleanup under way at an Exxon Mobil service station in their area after being notified of a newly discovered leak of a gasoline additive from the closed Parkton landfill.

Officials said they did not inform nearby property owners of old leaks because the law only applies to newly discovered contamination. But under pressure from community activists and legislators, officials say they are considering informing residents of at least some of the older underground fuel leaks as well.

"That's one thing we're struggling on here: how to get the word out on our existing cases, especially in high-risk groundwater areas," said Herbert Meade, who, as chief of MDE's oil control program, oversees regulation of fuel tanks and leak cleanups.

Meade said as many as 200 to 300 of his agency's old groundwater contamination cases might be serious enough to warrant notifying surrounding property owners.

But Horacio Tablada, MDE's waste management director and Meade's supervisor, cautioned that no decision has been made yet on how -- or even whether -- word would be spread about the older leaks. He said state officials first need to compile fact sheets on the older cases and coordinate any disclosure of them with local health departments. Under the 10-month-old law, local health departments are responsible -- once notified by the state environmental agency -- for informing property owners within a half-mile of a newly discovered fuel leak.

"We heard the citizens," Tablada said. "We want to have full disclosure, but we want to have good information. ... We need to be cautious about how fast we move so we don't create more confusion."

State officials have insisted that the new law only requires notice to surrounding property owners of newly discovered leaks. But community activists complain that residents' wells are just as much at risk from older fuel leaks that may spread undetected over the years.

Residents in the Fallston area of Harford County, scene of the state's most widespread underground fuel leak in 2004, say they were disturbed to learn that a 7-Eleven store in the area that sells gasoline had been treating its well water for years to remove high levels of a gas additive, methyl tertiary butyl ether. Traces of MTBE were detected in nearby wells. MTBE has caused cancer in lab animals, though its health effects at the low levels seen in wells are unknown.

"There's a gas station surrounded by a restaurant and food establishments," said Dr. Gene Ratych, a board member of the Greater Fallston Association. But, he added, "The community was not notified officially because the leak preceded the law."

Del. Barry Glassman, a Harford Republican who sponsored the leak notification bill, said the state's resistance to notifying residents about older leaks goes against the spirit of the law. He said he was prepared to seek legislation next year to require notification.

"If for, say, 10 years, [the contamination] hasn't been above the actionable level," Glassman said, "I can understand there's no need to reopen the case and do a notification. But where they're still getting findings [of MTBE] above 20 parts per billion, the reasonable thing would be to go ahead and do a notification and let folks know."

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