O'Malley wants MDE to reconsider Exxon decision

Two parts of post-spill remediation discontinued

March 03, 2010|By Nick Madigan | nick.madigan@baltsun.com

Acting with what he called "great concern," Gov. Martin O'Malley urged Environment Secretary Shari T. Wilson in a letter Tuesday to "expeditiously and carefully revisit" her agency's decision to allow ExxonMobil to discontinue two elements of the remediation efforts it began in 2006 after a huge gasoline spill in northern Baltimore County.

"It is imperative that public confidence is maintained and that regulatory decisions are effectively communicated and understood," O'Malley wrote after reading in The Baltimore Sun about a decision by the Maryland Department of the Environment to allow ExxonMobil to stop monitoring 130 residential groundwater wells in the Jacksonville area and to cease delivering free bottled water to 126 households affected by the underground leak.

In asking for Wilson's "prompt attention to this matter," the governor pointed to "the many challenges in maintaining groundwater purity over a large area" and the "uncertainties surrounding the detrimental effects of even minute levels" of gasoline additives such as methyl tertiary butyl ether, commonly referred to as MTBE, which has been shown to cause cancer in rats.

Reached later in the day between meetings in Annapolis, Wilson confirmed that she had heard from the governor.

"We will expeditiously review our decision," Wilson said. O'Malley's letter, she said, "demonstrates the governor's concern for the safety of Marylanders, and we wholeheartedly concur."

ExxonMobil continues to test for groundwater contamination in the area using water samples from hundreds of monitoring wells that it built after the 26,000-gallon leak was discovered in February 2006. The wells that it sought to stop testing are all privately owned.

"For nearly four years, ExxonMobil has worked with MDE, and under its guidance, to make sure that the groundwater is safe to use and drink," Kevin M. Allexon, a Virginia-based spokesman for the oil giant, said after hearing of the governor's letter. "We will continue to do so."

In a Feb. 1 letter to ExxonMobil, the MDE said it would grant the oil company's request to stop monitoring 130 of the 248 private wells it was sampling and to end its deliveries of bottled water. The company's clean-up efforts, the MDE letter said, have produced "significant improvements in groundwater conditions."

Lawyers for residents have disputed those assertions. Michael B. Snyder, a member of a Baltimore legal team that sued ExxonMobil on behalf of more than 300 residents affected by the spill, welcomed O'Malley's request Tuesday to reconsider the matter.

"This is great news for the community and those living with the everyday fears, concerns and frustrations caused by ExxonMobil's misconduct," Snyder said. "Thankfully, Gov. O'Malley recognizes that the state of Maryland and its agencies have not only a duty to protect the citizens of Maryland but also a duty to ensure their safety, health and well-being once a disaster occurs."

Snyder said he hoped the MDE "will change its mind and require Exxon to continue providing bottled water and water testing to these families."

Another positive reaction came from Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. "We want MDE to make sure the drinking water is safe for the people of Jacksonville," he said. "They've been through enough."

T. Bryan McIntire, a member of the Baltimore County Council whose district covers Jacksonville, did not respond to a message seeking comment, but his colleague Kevin B. Kamenetz did.

"I suspect that if the Exxon executives lived with these contaminated wells, their response might be different," said Kamenetz, who represents Pikesville and Ruxton. "The governor is doing the right thing, seeking assurance that our citizens are properly protected."

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