Jacksonville Exxon spill: 5 years later

In wake of spill at gas station, Jacksonville residents testify about short showers, bottled water and pollution fears in second civil trial

April 06, 2011|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

Whatever the pressures of his city law practice, Robert Lazzaro could count on finding refuge at the end of the day at his home in Jacksonville, where the back deck offered quiet, a hot tub and a woodland view. That changed five years ago after an Exxon station less than a mile away leaked about 25,000 gallons of regular unleaded gasoline into the groundwater, contaminating dozens of wells and casting a shadow of fear over the small community in northern Baltimore County.

"It's a constant worry, it's a constant stressor," said Lazzaro. When he leaves home in the morning and heads for the office, he said, "I feel a little less stressed out."Lazzaro told his story in Baltimore County Circuit Court recently in a second civil lawsuit, brought by about 150 plaintiffs, stemming from one of the worst gasoline spills in state history. The trial opened in January and is expected to last until June. Meanwhile, the $150 million verdict against ExxonMobil in the first lawsuit filed by different plaintiffs is being challenged by the oil company in the Maryland Court of Appeals.

ExxonMobil, which has not yet started to present witnesses, accepts responsibility for the leak but argues about the extent of the injury. A lawyer for the company, James F. Sanders, told a plaintiff's witness on the stand a few weeks ago that her house near the gas station was "one of those properties we know we damaged. The question is what kind of damage and how much."

That question is being sorted out day to day by those who live and work in the village. Life has returned to normal in some ways, and much depends on where you are in relation to the course the gasoline took through the ground.

No reports of physical illness linked to gasoline contamination have surfaced in the Jacksonville area, where there is no public water system and more than 4,000 households depend on private wells for drinking water and septic systems.

In interviews and trial testimony, residents say the accident has taken a toll in lost sleep and property values, brought anxiety, stress-related head and muscle aches, and a litany of daily inconveniences: short showers, bottled water, discolored laundry.

Residents worry about health effects that might yet appear, about the reliability of government standards for certain contaminants, and whether the intersection of Jarrettsville Pike, Paper Mill and Sweet Air roads - where the Exxon station once stood - will ever be fully restored as the community's commercial center.

"There's a cloud over this neighborhood," said Douglas E. Oakley, president of the Greater Jacksonville Association. "There's a cloud, no doubt."

At Four Corners

Oakley was sitting alongside former association president Glen A. Thomas in a booth at Chops Restaurant & Lounge in the Manor Center shopping area at Four Corners, where Jarrettsville Pike crosses Paper Mill and Sweet Air roads. The restaurant opened five months ago, representing a significant recent commercial investment in the area that was at the center of the cleanup that began in late winter 2006.

Scores of workers in hard hats and orange vests converged from around the country to pump out the gasoline and seek out underground contamination, eventually drilling 284 test wells up to 615 feet deep outside stores, offices, in backyards and front lawns.

If, as Thomas recalled, it then looked like a "war zone," the area now resembles a combination town center and water treatment station in the midst of the Loch Raven Reservoir watershed.

The site of the former Exxon station on Jarrettsville Pike and a spot behind the M&T Bank on Sweet Air Road have been fenced, partly concealing boxy, putty-colored structures containing gear used to draw out gasoline vapor and groundwater. The treatment system runs water through a purification system, checks it for contamination and returns it to the Sawmill and the Greene Branch tributaries. About 10,700 gallons of liquid gasoline have been pumped out; the rest has mixed with the groundwater.

Five years later, the pumps still run day and night, treating about 32 gallons of water a minute, 77 million gallons so far, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment. Under an agreement with the MDE, ExxonMobil has until June 2014 to finish the job of treating groundwater and gasoline vapor. As recently as the last few months, new test wells have been drilled northeast of the old Exxon site.

Between tests ordered by the state and by the Peter Angelos law firm, which is representing plaintiffs in the current case, 396 wells at homes and businesses were tested in Jacksonville. Most are clustered in a rough diagonal pattern extending about a half-mile southwest and three-quarters of a mile northeast of the Exxon station. Within that boundary, test results can vary widely from one block to the next, even from one house to the next.

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