Safe for drinking?

November 01, 2011

A practice that separates people from creatures of lesser mental capacity is having the good sense not to befoul with waste the places where we eat.

Though some of us fail to understand the importance of this concept when it comes to certain figurative situations, in literal situations, almost no one has a problem keeping the functions separate.

Strangely, while keeping our food sources free of contamination is something we all attach a high priority to when it comes to our personal needs, there are times when this simple necessity of civilized behavior isn't afforded to those around us.

In decades past in this country, the practice of disposing of waste by dumping it into a flowing river was considered acceptable, even though it would then become the problem of the people living downstream.

Increasingly, though, as a society we've come to understand that one person tossing garbage or other waste into the creek upstream from where someone else gets drinking water is just plain wrong.

Oddly, it has taken longer to understand that this notion applies in a lot of situations. One in particular that is in high profile these days in Harford County is the matter of protecting well water from becoming contaminated by gasoline.

A few years back, it became clear that the chemical MTBE (referred to by those initials because its chemical name, methyl tertiary butyl ether, is a mouthful), a gasoline additive designed to reduce ground level ozone pollution, was getting into well water around gas stations, notably in the Fallston community of Upper Crossroads, as well as in the Baltimore County community of Jacksonville and in the Aberdeen area.

The additive is fairly potent, so the threshold for noting its presence is relatively low, even as its potential for causing harm is only vaguely defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Though it is a suspected carcinogen, the EPA notes it is only pondering setting health standards for the chemical.

In the aftermath of MTBE showing up in local well fields, mostly private, but the one in Aberdeen being in relatively close proximity to a county water source, Harford County's government acted to strictly regulate the building of new gas stations in places where water was being drawn from the ground for human consumption.

Since then, MTBE has been replaced by alcohol as the air pollution reducing additive of choice, and the county council is pondering reducing the restrictions on new or expanded gas stations in areas where well water is extracted for drinking.

This has a fairly large number of people upset, and rightly so. Yes, we all use gasoline, and yes, no one ever gave gas stations a second thought in the years before MTBE started showing up in well water. But that doesn't mean just because MTBE isn't in gasoline any more that the danger is gone.

It's true a gas station isn't going to contaminate any well water around it with MTBE because that chemical isn't used in gasoline any more. The problem is that if MTBE was able to seep into the ground water, that means there's a good chance gasoline and its many component chemicals could also be getting into ground water.

We may not have been focused on this threat of contamination before the MTBE problem arrived, but in retrospect, it seems allowing potentially leaky gas stations to be opened in places where they could contaminate water is as foolish a public policy as allowing raw sewage to be dumped into a creek just upstream from a town's drinking water intake.

Harford County would do well to keep strict policies in place when it comes to allowing gas stations in places where people are getting their drinking water.

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