Exxon ruling draws protest

County residents appeal reduction of well-water monitoring after gas leak

March 02, 2010|By Nick Madigan | nick.madigan@baltsun.com

Lawyers for a group of northern Baltimore County residents are appealing a state decision that allows ExxonMobil to stop monitoring some residential wells contaminated after thousands of gallons of gasoline seeped into the groundwater in 2006.

In January, the oil giant sought the Maryland Department of the Environment's approval to discontinue testing of water samples from some of the 248 private wells being monitored in and around Jacksonville, and to allow it to cease its deliveries of free bottled water to 126 households that are among hundreds affected by the gasoline leak.

In a Feb. 1 letter to ExxonMobil, the MDE said the oil company was doing an effective job of cleaning up the area and agreed to its requests to stop the sampling of 130 of the homeowners' wells and to stop the bottled water deliveries.

"It's just unconscionable," said Steve Tizard, who has lived on Robcaste Road, just behind the gas station, for a decade with his wife and two children. After four years of deliveries from ExxonMobil every two weeks, their last batch of bottled water came Friday.

Tizard's was one of 88 families awarded $150 million in damages by a Baltimore County jury after a five-month trial against ExxonMobil that ended a year ago. They have yet to collect because the company has appealed.

In addition to his own potable well - which will continue to be monitored for the time being - Tizard's property now has seven of ExxonMobil's monitoring wells, and three more in the street out in front. The most recent test of Tizard's well showed a count of 0.2 parts per billion of the fuel additive MTBE, which has been shown to cause cancer in rats. That's far below the state threshold of 20 parts per billion but still a cause for concern, he said.

"There's no science out there that tells you that even low levels of MTBE are safe to drink," said Tizard, who owns a pair of 7-Eleven stores, in Hunt Valley and Hampstead. "And if they did tell you that, would you drink it? Are we going to be guinea pigs for the scientific community? I don't think so."

Tizard said he and his neighbors were looking into buying bottled water at the most economical rates, and acknowledged that it was an expense for ExxonMobil to have provided water for the community since 2006. "But in the scheme of things, this is nickels and dimes to the largest corporation in the world," he said.

ExxonMobil continues to look for groundwater contamination using monitoring wells it built after the leak in a high-pressure pipe at the Exxon station on Jarrettsville Pike in January 2006.

The rupture poured more than 26,000 gallons of regular gasoline into the ground before it was discovered five weeks later.

Ultimately, dozens of water wells were found to have been contaminated, at least in part, by MTBE, methyl tertiary butyl ether. Property values in the area plummeted.

During the trial that ended last year, a lawyer for ExxonMobil, James F. Sanders, said the company regretted the damage done to the Jacksonville properties and wanted "to make it right." He said that ExxonMobil would not be able to stop its remediation efforts in and around Jacksonville until the MDE "says it is clean," which he said could take a decade or more.

Sanders, reached on Monday at his office in Nashville, Tenn., referred a reporter to a Feb. 1 letter from the MDE to an ExxonMobil project manager, James F. Medlin, that says the company's remediation efforts in Jacksonville have "produced significant improvements in groundwater conditions, thus mitigating the threat to the water supply for the 130 properties."

The MDE denied the company's request that it be allowed to perform fewer water-quality inspections at other sites in the area, but said ExxonMobil could ask the agency to reassess its position in six months.

In a Feb. 12 letter to residents, a copy of which was obtained by The Baltimore Sun, Medlin said groundwater tests "have demonstrated that remediation is successfully cleaning up the contamination and has significantly improved groundwater conditions."

In general, private wells closest to the gas station are tested more frequently, as often as once a month. As sites improve, they are tested less often.

Addressing the 130 property owners whose private wells are no longer being monitored, Medlin wrote that ExxonMobil "does not believe that gasoline constituents above the MDE's state action levels will be detected in your well in the future."

In response, Theodore M. Flerlage Jr., a lawyer for an additional 171 residential and business property owners from the area whose lawsuit against ExxonMobil is set for trial this fall, wrote in a Feb. 24 letter to the MDE that the agency should reconsider the company's requests and deny them, "as they increase the immediate and long-term adverse effects to Jacksonville residents, business owners and the Jacksonville-area environment."

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