MTBE leak puts lives of families on pause

Long wait for resolution to gas additive case

May 09, 2008|By Madison Park | Madison Park,Sun Reporter

For more than a decade, Carl and Patricia Morgan rented out their two-story house in Fallston, but it has been vacant for nearly four years now.

The Morgans can't rent the well-kept house with the manicured lawn and they won't let their daughter live there either.

After a toxic gasoline chemical leaked into their well, the Morgans are afraid of their water.

Since 2004, residents like the Morgans have worried about their health, quality of life and diminished property values. Some residents have shouldered the expense of bottled water and maintenance costs on a filtration system, all while waiting to see what happens with the lawsuits against their former neighbor, a major oil company.

Over the years, Patricia Morgan said the contamination of the wells has been "forgotten and lost in the shuffle. Not much has changed. We feel we're in limbo."

The Morgans' property in the Upper Crossroads neighborhood backs up to the now-closed Exxon service station where the chemical leak was discovered. The site of the former station is blanketed with dandelions and scattered well heads. There's also a water treatment machine enclosed by a chain-link fence.

The gasoline additive, methyl tertiary butyl ether, MTBE, leaked from the station at the intersection of Routes 152 and 165 and affected more than 100 homes and businesses within a one-half mile radius. The spreading chemical also triggered the largest contamination of MTBE in Maryland, according to officials.

It could take at least a decade before the MTBE, detected in 155 Fallston wells, completely disappears, experts said.

In a New York federal court earlier this week , 12 major oil companies, including BP, Shell, Sunoco and Chevron, agreed to pay $423 million to settle MTBE-related lawsuits with 153 public water systems across the country. But ExxonMobil was not among the companies involved in the settlement, which is pending court approval.

Exxon will continue to defend itself from MTBE lawsuits, said company spokeswoman Prem Nair.

"As far as we are concerned, these suits are without merit," she said. "Our conduct did not cause either physical injury or damages; we plan to vigorously defend our position."

The contamination in Fallston became public nearly four years ago, prompting many residents in the neighborhood to stop using their wells and to rely on bottled water.

The second largest MTBE case in Maryland occurred in Baltimore County, about 10 miles from Fallston, where a 26,000-gallon gasoline spill was reported at a Jacksonville-area Exxon station. The February 2006 spill is among several MTBE cases, including one at an elementary school in Forest Hill and another at a Randallstown development, monitored by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

When low levels of MTBE were detected at her Fallston home in 2006, Beth F. Scheir, who lives north of the station, said her family switched to bottled water for several months. A carbon filtration system was installed in her home in 2004 to purify the well water.

Although MTBE levels in the Fallston area have receded, frustration has not. Residents are angry at Exxon and government agencies over the handling of the contamination and for keeping it secret for more than a decade.

That anger has festered into lawsuits. Almost four years later, none of the lawsuits filed against Exxon and the former Upper Crossroads station owner has gone to trial.

MTBE, which was introduced to burn gasoline cleaner, is no longer used. Refineries voluntarily stopped using it in 2006 after several states banned the additive and multiple lawsuits were filed, said Herbert Meade, administrator of the oil control program for the state's environment agency.

The chemical has been linked to cancer in laboratory animals, but its toxicity to humans at low levels has never been determined.

The MTBE leaked from the Fallston station's underground storage tanks in the form of vapors and traveled into the groundwater, Meade said. There were 34 vapor leaks.

After the Upper Crossroads station closed in 2005, Exxon ripped out the underground tanks, removed contaminated soil and installed a pumping machine that has treated about 4.5 million gallons of water, Meade said.

In an e-mailed statement, Exxon spokeswoman Nair, wrote that the company has been following a corrective plan approved by the state environmental agency.

Residents are hoping that one of their complaints will be classified as a class action lawsuit. They want Exxon to pay for medical monitoring and damages.

"There are health ramifications for people who have been exposed for who knows how long," said Ted Flerlage, an attorney with the firm of Peter G. Angelos, which filed one of the lawsuits against Exxon.

In a related case, Flerlage represented four families who sued a developer for selling them homes in Fallston with contaminated water. A Montgomery County jury awarded the plaintiffs about $200,000 each in compensatory and punitive damages in March.

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