Members of the Jarrettsville/Norrisville Community Council plan to protest newly-proposed Harford County legislation that would allow gasoline stations in rural areas served by private wells to expand or get upgrades without necessarily going through the Board of Appeals.

The bill comes six years after wells in several residential neighborhoods in the county were damaged from the leaking gasoline additive MTBE, and the county in turn clamped down on the development of new stations.

The health effects of humans ingesting MTBE has been the subject of worldwide debate and though there is no conclusive evidence the chemical causes cancer or has other harmful effects, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has set a very low action level for the chemical's presence in drinking water.

A public hearing on the bill, 11-48, is set for Nov. 8; it was introduced Oct. 11 by Councilmen Dick Slutzky and Jim McMahan.

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The bill would repeal parts of the 2005 legislation enacted in the wake of MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, spills in Fallston and Aberdeen, as well as in nearby Jacksonville in Baltimore County.

"Is this the camel's nose?" Jarrettsville Community Council Chairman David Seman asked at the group's Wednesday meeting at the Norrisville fire station.

Seman said he has talked with Slutzky and McMahan, who "in their heart of hearts… believe this is a good thing."

Seman said the councilmen noted the bill would give service station owners state-of-the-art equipment, let them employ more people and provide other benefits.

"I'm like, 'OK, but don't you understand the problems we have had?'" Seman said, adding, "Maybe we don't want high-intensity lights 24/7. Maybe we don't want Royal Farms up in the north."

McMahan lives in Bel Air, Slutzky in Aberdeen. Both communities have public water supplies, but part of Aberdeen's supply was threatened by an MTBE leak from a convenience store gasoline tank, and the city recently announced it will be getting $2.5 million from a national lawsuit filed over gas station emissions.

Morita Bruce, who has been active in the Fallston community on the gas station issue, said in a statement the bill would get rid of the requirement that rural gas stations ask for permission to expand and go through a review and hearing process.

"Bill 11-48 will instead allow rural gas stations to expand at the sole discretion of the gas station owner; and it will eliminate the Council's oversight authority," she wrote, questioning why not a single gas station has asked permission so far.

"Furthermore, I believe it can and will be used to open the floodgates for new gas stations anywhere in Harford," she wrote.

Bruce also wrote that "in spite of what some may believe, this bill will open rural Harford to more gas stations…Preventing the Council from making site-specific decisions essentially says updated equipment is automatically deemed 'good enough' – regardless of where it's located."

She tried to read the same statement at the Oct. 11 county council meeting, but Council President Billy Boniface said he would not accept comments on the bill until the official public hearing.

At the community council meeting Wednesday, Bruce questioned the focus on upgrading gas stations, explaining that the stations that were behind the spills had the newest equipment when the problems occurred.

"They had the latest. It worked," she said. "If this goes through, the gas station owner makes that decision [to upgrade] as a matter of right. No one can tell him 'no.'"

Roman Ratych, who is active in the Greater Fallston Association and served on committees that recommended the existing Harford bans on new stations, said MTBE is not the only concern. He said stations could leak benzene, a known carcinogen, while there has been no proof to date that MTBE is carcinogenic.

"[The 7-Eleven station in] Aberdeen had state-of-the-art equipment and leaked benzene," he said. "The argument that is going to be made is it's going to be safer and there's no MTBE. Our concern is benzene."

In Fallston, an Exxon-Mobil station at the intersection of Routes 165 and 152 was found to be the source of MTBE that was discovered in residential wells within a mile radius of the station, which has since been closed and its tanks and other equipment removed.