Exxon ends Harford bottled water supply

Two years after MTBE leak in Fallston area, corporation halts `voluntary' practice


Exxon Mobil Corp. has notified 120 residents in the Fallston area of Harford County that it will stop supplying them with free bottled water, two years after a gasoline leak at its Upper Crossroads station that is suspected to have contaminated underground wells.

Residents with nondetectable or low-level traces of the gas additive, methyl tertiary butyl ether, received the letters this month from Exxon informing them of the decision, according to the company.

About 200 households in the Fallston area have filtration systems treating their well water to remove low levels of MTBE discovered in the summer of 2004. An Exxon service station identified by the state as a source of the contamination has since shut down.

Eleven homes still show levels above 20 parts per billion, said Herbert Meade, chief of the Maryland Department of the Environment's oil-control program.

"The bottled water was always a voluntary action," Meade said. "The MDE requirement to Exxon was to maintain filter units on any private well that was showing MTBE over 20 parts per billion. They have done that."

But, he cautioned, "drinking the water, even if any level, is a personal decision."

Many residents are still nervous about the quality of their drinking water and will continue to use bottled water, at their own expense, said Dr. Gene Ratych, a physician and board member of the Greater Fallston Association.

He said there are no studies on the long-term affects of ingesting low-levels of MTBE, though it has been shown to cause cancer in lab animals.

The state recommends filtering or replacing water that shows 20 parts per billion or more of MTBE because it can be tasted or smelled.

Ratych's letter from Exxon, dated July 19, said that Ratych's MTBE levels had never exceeded .5 parts per billion after continuous testing in three-month cycles.

"After sampling your private supply well for gasoline constituents for approximately two years, these data support the conclusion that your private supply well water meets the applicable MDE action levels," the letter said.

Ratych said he believes the state should force the company to provide the water for residents with any MTBE detected in their wells.

Some residents said they feared that the servicing of carbon-filtration systems, which can cost up to $500 each time the filter is changed, could be next to go.

Frank Koch, 64, said he stopped receiving the bottled water nine months ago, when he received a filtration system.

But he continued to buy bottled water rather than drink his tap water, saying the filters affected the taste and odor.

"Personally, I feel that they're backing off of their responsibility," Koch said. "They're the ones who put the stuff underground. It affects more than just drinking - psychologically, emotionally, in all kinds of ways that you can't imagine."

A spokeswoman for Exxon Mobil said in an e-mail statement that the company had not yet reached a decision over whether to stop servicing the carbon filters.

"Exxon Mobil has and will comply with all requirements set forth by the MDE with regards to the groundwater investigation at the former station in Fallston," said spokeswoman Paula P. Chen.


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