6:04 PM EDT, October 22, 2012
I need to take a moment to tell you about Brad Marvel, a trained, certified, proud and professional automobile mechanic. I think I should add the he's sincere and earnest, and emphasize that he's a human being — a person, not a corporation.
I had a meal with him at Bill Bateman's in Parkville. Marvel was so eager to tell his story that he barely touched his Monday night all-you-can-eat chicken wings special.
At its core, Brad's story goes something like this: "I loved my customers at the Jacksonville Exxon station, and I want all of them to know — especially the ones who were harmed by the leak — that I had nothing to do with that."
The Jacksonville Exxon, of course, became notorious virtually overnight in February 2006, when more than 26,000 gallons of regular unleaded gasoline were found to have leaked into the ground, contaminating dozens of wells and causing terrible anxiety among homeowners near Jarrettsville Pike, Paper Mill and Sweet Air roads in north-central Baltimore County.
It was one of the worst gasoline leaks in Maryland history.
It led to lawsuits and trials.
One, seeking compensation for 90 households, resulted in a $147 million verdict against Exxon Mobil Corp.; a state appeals court rejected much of the damage award.
The second suit, brought by lawyers associated with Peter Angelos on behalf of 160 families and businesses, resulted in $1.5 billion in damages, largely punitive, against Exxon Mobil — possibly the most ever levied by a jury in a case of underground contamination from a gas station.
The state attorney general also went after the company. The Maryland Department of the Environment got $4 million in 2008, the largest environmental penalty ever won by the state.
In addition, Exxon Mobil spent $46 million on the cleanup, according to one of its attorneys. The gas station is closed, but the cleanup continues.
Now, back to Marvel and supper at Bill Bateman's.
"I care about my name and reputation," he tells me.
That's why we're meeting. Marvel, as the service manager at the Jacksonville Exxon for many years, was the face of the place, though not its owner. He wasn't Exxon, either. He was just Brad, the dutiful, mild-mannered mechanic people met when they brought their cars in for service.
And what Marvel has wanted to say all along is this: To all those customers out there who think he was involved in the gasoline leak, please think otherwise.
"I wasn't allowed to look at the books," he says, referring to the station's records of gasoline deliveries and retail sales. As loyal and as conscientious as he was, Marvel says, the family that owned the station never involved him in the business side of the establishment, and that included checking for any discrepancies in gasoline inventory.
"If I had been allowed to look at the books, this leak never would have happened. It certainly never would have gone on for so long — losing 500 gallons a day."
In fact, the station leaked 675 gallons a day for 37 days in the winter of 2006. According to reports in The Baltimore Sun, a contractor working on the underground fuel system accidentally drilled a small hole into a pressurized gasoline line. That occurred Jan. 13, 2006. Another contractor did not realize there was a leak and reset the station's leak detector. A consent decree between MDE and Exxon Mobil says that recalibration "may have allowed the continuous release of gasoline to go undetected."
It was during the third week of February that a worried supervisor asked Marvel to "review the bookkeeping."
He did, he says, and he noticed the gasoline losses right away.
"However," he says, "at that time I was unsure if it was a leak or theft. Not until the next morning did we all realize it was a release."
For weeks, he says, the station's leak-detection system had given false data. Everything looked OK … and then it didn't.
On Feb. 17, the owners of the gas station alerted state environmental officials about the leak, and cleanup and litigation followed.
Marvel has since moved on. He has a new job at Babcock's Service Center in Cockeysville.
But he still seems a little shell-shocked by what happened six years ago in Jacksonville. He still gets emotional. Though he was never named a defendant in any litigation, he's been questioned by attorneys and has legal bills to pay.
Most of all, he worries about what people think about him. He liked his job, he says. He cared about the customers. A terrible thing happened, but it wasn't his doing, and could I please, for the record, let everyone know that? "And," he says, "that I wish them all well."
He seems so sincere and earnest about that — which, despite what the Supreme Court says, is the difference between a person and a corporation. It's hard to judge someone from a brief encounter, but I think we're on solid ground here. So that's why I wanted to tell you about Brad Marvel — as a favor to him, and as a reassurance for the rest of us that such human beings exist.
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