About 70 percent of the tested wells showed traces of methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, a gasoline additive that has been linked to cancer in some laboratory studies of animals. The amounts range from estimates of less than 1 part per billion up to the Maryland limit of 20 parts per billion.
Wells at 12 homes and businesses exceeded the Maryland limit, according to the MDE. In those cases, the state required Exxon to install a carbon filtration system and conduct regular water tests.
Whether the pumping station grounds owned or leased by Exxon will ever again be used as commercial property is unclear; neither is it clear how long or to how many residents Exxon will be supplying bottled water. A spokeswoman for ExxonMobil said she could not answer any questions because of a gag order imposed in the case by Baltimore County Circuit Judge Robert N. Dugan.
Thomas, the association president when the accident occurred, spoke in an interview of the "uncertainty and the anxiety" even now. He wonders about the reliability of state standards for MTBE contamination, which vary from a low of 10 parts per billion in New York to 240 in Michigan and Texas.
The Environmental Protection Agency has set no national standard for the compound, which was added widely to gasoline starting in the late 1970s to increase octane and reduce emissions. Since 2003, states have been phasing it out, and it is no longer used in Maryland. The EPA website makes no definitive statement about MTBE and human health, but urges a limit in water of 20 to 40 parts per billion.
At the upper limit, you can start to smell an odor somewhat like turpentine. For weeks, many Jacksonville residents say, they could smell gasoline in backyards and basements near where the contamination was most severe.
If the health impact remains to be seen, Thomas said, it's clear residents want their town center back.
"People are upset about how the town looks," he said, "having a stockade fence in the equivalent of three commercial properties" in the heart of the village.
Real estate effects
Those who live and work in Jacksonville take some measure of the spill's impact in terms of real estate, though calculations of sales, prices and empty storefronts are complicated by the fact that the leak occurred near the market peak and not long before the beginning of a years-long decline.
At Manor Center, five of the 14 storefronts are vacant, but it is not clear whether that has anything to do with the gasoline leak. The property manager did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Water tests showed the Manor Center shopping area east of the Exxon station and the Paper Mill Village office and retail center to the north were not affected by contamination. But perception is another matter, said Heidi Hildreth, owner of Heidi's Hair Connection in Manor Center.
"People thought we had a problem when we didn't," said Hildreth, adding that she believes the shop lost a few customers because of the leak. "We've had clientele who didn't want to get shampoos here."
Patrick Ziemann, a server at Chops, said that when the restaurant opened in November, people would start to ask for water, then switch to a soft drink. It doesn't happen much anymore, he said.
Chops owner Christopher Lambros said he relied on MDE reports that the water in Manor Center was safe and went ahead with his investment in the restaurant. The free-standing building has been home to several restaurants since the late 1970s but was vacant for about six months before Chops opened.
Lambros and his partners put about $200,000 into renovations. Thomas said he believes that is the biggest single commercial investment in the village center since the spill.
"The way I looked at it was this," said Lambros. "If the shopping center was affected to the point where it wasn't functional, they would have shut it down."
By at least one account, the market for area home sales just about shut down when news of the gasoline leak broke in February 2006.
"It went to hell in a handbasket," said Louisa M. Townsend, a realtor with O'Conor & Mooney at the Manor Center. "I don't think a house sold for months after that."
She said her agency started to put disclaimers in sales contracts for all homes in the Phoenix ZIP code, which includes Jacksonville, saying that there had been a spill at the Exxon station in early 2006. The statement recommends a water test for gasoline contamination along with any other tests routinely required by lenders to approve a mortgage for a house on well water.
Some sellers, she said, had water quality tests done themselves and included good results in their brochures. She said sales have picked up in the past couple of years, but estimates that the leak could be costing sellers 10 percent or 15 percent on their price.
"There absolutely needs to be a disclaimer in the contract," said Tom Levin, a Realtor with Keller Williams Realty.