Harford kept in dark over MTBE test

State blames clerical mistake for late notification of water contamination near homes

September 12, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

Harford County officials have notified 375 households in Forest Hill that high levels of hazardous gasoline additives have been detected in the groundwater at a former gas station adjacent to an elementary school, where the levels have been rising since spring.

The letters, sent Friday, come nearly two months after the state received the results of groundwater testing at Meller's Food Mart, a convenience store and former Sunoco station. The state's delay in notifying the county Health Department could be a violation of Maryland law.

In late June, state tests on a monitoring well near the food mart showed the presence of methyl tertiary butyl ether - or MTBE - at more than 10,000 parts per billion, well above the threshold that requires corrective action. But the county Health Department did not receive word of detection until Aug. 31 - nearly seven weeks after the findings.

A law requiring the state to notify local health departments within 14 days of the discovery of contamination was passed by the General Assembly in 2005. The measure was drawn up by state legislators from Harford County after traces of the gasoline additive were found in nearly 180 private wells in the Upper Crossroads section of the county.

Herb Meade, an administrator for the Maryland Department of the Environment's oil control program, said it was the first instance since the law went into effect in which the state was not in compliance. He attributed it to a clerical mistake.

The delay frustrated Del. Barry Glassman, a Harford legislator who crafted the bill.

"It's a classic thing we've been battling, and there's really no excuse for it. Folks want to be notified," the Republican said.

Harford's environmental health director, Susan Kelly, stressed that the letters - sent to residents within a quarter-mile of the site - were for informational purposes and that there is not believed to be an immediate health risk. But Meade said additional monitoring wells still need to be installed at the site to determine the extent of the contamination.

MTBE levels at Forest Hill Elementary, just steps away from the former gas station, have spiked since the substance was first detected in the spring, and students have been using bottled water and eating food cooked at other schools. The wells of neighboring businesses have shown no sign of the additive, Meade said.

Officials would not immediately link the contamination at the school with that at the food mart until further tests are conducted.

The results from the three wells were "all over the place," Kelly said. MTBE was detected at 10,100 parts per billion and 64 parts per billion in two of the wells, but only 1 part per billion in the third. One of the wells also showed benzene, another gas additive, at 171 parts per billion.

"It's a level we definitely did not want to see in a drinking-water area," Meade said. "But another well came back at 1 part per billion, so it appears it may be very localized to the former tank area. ... It's going to be a complex case."

Though there are no studies of the effects of drinking MTBE-contaminated water, it has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals at high concentrations. The federal agency has not set a safe drinking-water level for the substance, but recommends action if concentrations exceed 20 parts per billion - the threshold at which people can taste or smell it.

For benzene, the EPA requires that water have less than 5 parts per billion.


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