Harford residents concerned about bill to let rural gasoline stations upgrade, expand

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.

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.

'Opportunity to improve'

The Slutzky and McMahan bill before the county council justifies allowing qualifying stations to expand by citing the county's 2005 law forbidding new stations from opening in areas outside the public water system, new state laws governing the installation and operation of fuel storage tanks that are "among the strictest in the nation" and the fact that MTBE is no longer used as a fuel additive.

"This legislation is not intended to and should in no way ever be interpreted to encourage or allow the construction of new underground fuel storage tank facilities which are not on public utilities," the bill reads.

Slutzky said Thursday the bill is needed to allow station owners to make necessary upgrades.

He said Harford might be the only county that forces gas station owners to go through the Board of Appeals to make improvements, which he called an "unintended consequence" of the 2005 law.

"The bottom line is, many of them have the old-style tank systems, they don't have all the safety mechanisms and valves," he said. "There is no incentive for these stations to replace these old tanks."

"Without them being able to reconfigure their stations, it doesn't allow them to grow any bigger than the footprint they already have," he said.

Slutzky dismissed concerns the bill would lead to new stations being built in rural areas.

"The legislation doesn't permit anything else to happen," he said. "It's not going to open it up to giant, big gas stations."

Although he agreed gasoline has other toxic substances, he said MTBE was believed to be unique in that it "seeks water."

He also said upgrades are necessary even if the stations that had the original leaks were state-of-the-art at the time.

"The state-of-the-art has changed since then," he said. "Are we looking at a greater failure down the line because we don't improve those tanks? If we don't give them the financial opportunity to improve, I don't think they are going to do it out of the goodness of their hearts."

'This is not going to go through'

Councilman Chad Shrodes, who represents the county's northern third where there is no public water service, has a different view of the legislation.

Shrodes, who attended Wednesday's community council meeting, said the bill does not take into account the recommendations made by community members earlier on the issue.

"The interesting thing about this is, the legislation that's out there is not the draft that we had looked at," he said at the community council meeting, explaining the community had worked on design guidelines and architectural standards.

"They kind of just ignored that altogether and they ran with their own thing," he said of the sponsors. "I feel pretty confident that this is not going to go through, and I know many of the folks in this room have been sending e-mails and speaking with [the council]."

"The bottom line is, there is a process and if a particular company or individual wanted to expand, they would be able to," he said. "That allows us to impose sanctions."

The new legislation, meanwhile, "is a baby step toward allowing gas stations again in green space," Shrodes said. "I am pretty confident we are going to be able to defeat this."

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