Regulations aim to protect Md. wells from fuel additive

Sun Staff

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. proposed regulations yesterday aimed at preventing residential drinking water from being contaminated by potentially cancer-causing gasoline additives that leak from pipes beneath service stations.

Harford County residents have criticized the state for not acting quickly enough after reports surfaced that more than 100 wells in the Fallston area were tainted with the chemical MTBE, some from an Exxon gas station.

Ehrlich's proposed rules would require the installation of double-walled pipes and leak sensors on underground storage systems for new gas stations built in areas of the state where most residents get their water from wells.

Existing stations in these areas would be gradually required to make these improvements -- which can cost $50,000 to $100,000 -- by Jan. 1, 2009, according to Environment Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick.

Gas stations in areas, such as Baltimore, that are served by municipal water systems would not be affected, state officials said.

"For Maryland families that rely on wells, these new measures will provide additional assurance that their water supplies are clean and safe from MTBE and other gasoline components," Ehrlich said in a written statement. "These are tough, but necessary regulations to strengthen our environmental laws."

The proposal would take effect if approved by the regulatory review committee of the General Assembly. It could be in force by October.

Critics said the governor's proposal doesn't go nearly far enough. Some called for an outright ban on MTBE, a step that California and New York have taken. Others questioned why the state doesn't require the installation of double-lined pipes on all gas stations, new and old, in every section of the state.

"This falls far short of what's needed," said Theresa Pierno, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Twenty states have either banned MTBE or are in the process of phasing out its use. And we would like to have it phased out in Maryland, as well."

Gasoline additive

MTBE, methyl tertiary butyl ether, is a flammable liquid with a strong odor that has been added to gasoline since the late 1970s to make the fuel burn more cleanly.

The Sun reported in June that the potentially cancer-causing chemical had been showing up intermittently for more than a decade in wells around an Exxon service station at Routes 152 and 165 in the Fallston area, without prompting a thorough state investigation or action.

During a news conference yesterday at the Baltimore headquarters of the Maryland Department of the Environment, Philbrick said the state and Exxon had worked to solve the problem.

The state has concluded that some of the chemical probably came from vapor leaking out of improperly sealed pipes at the service station, which have since been fixed, Philbrick said. Other potential sources are still being investigated, he said.

Exxon installed filters in the water systems of 90 homes to strain out MTBE. Of 311 homes tested, 11 had enough of the chemical, more than 20 parts per billion, to prompt concern, Philbrick said. Twelve drinking wells had between 10 and 20 parts per billion, 12 had between 5 and 10 parts per billion, 89 had between 0.5 and 5 parts per billion, and 187 had less than 0.5 parts per billion.

No illnesses in these homes and businesses have been proven to be caused by the chemical, said Horacio Tablada, acting director of the waste management administration at the MDE.

F. Peter Horrigan, president of Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Distributors Association, said the new regulations could boost the price of gas.

"Any cost added to the price of construction will obviously be passed on to the consumers," Horrigan said.

Some Harford County residents complained the state still isn't doing enough about the problem.

Wallace Waynick, who lives 2 miles from the Exxon station, said he tested his wells last month and found traces of MTBE. He believes removing the gasoline additive from the state's fuel supply would be a quicker solution.

"Outlaw the junk," he said. "Why is it needed?"

Roman Ratych, vice president of the Greater Fallston Association, said he encourages any action that would reduce leakage of the chemical. But he said the community would like to see regulations that change how MDE handles such leaks.

He said MDE should have emptied the tanks under the Exxon station, dug up the soil and examined it for contamination before testing the tanks.

Tom Lusardi, a geologist who lives about a half-mile north of the Exxon station, called Ehrlich's proposed regulations "a positive step for the future."

"We're happy the sites aren't leaking today, but a leak did occur and they still haven't found it," Lusardi said. "Where did the leak come from?"

In compliance

Exxon Mobil Corp. announced Tuesday that the underground storage tanks at the Exxon station are now in compliance with environmental standards and had passed a test for fuel vapor leaks.

Some newer gas stations have already installed double-walled pipe systems on their underground storage tank systems, said Joe Sheetz, vice president of finance for Sheetz Inc., a gas station and convenience store company. He said his company has been installing double-walled pipes for 10 years.

Sun staff writers Patrick Tyler and Artika Rangan contributed to this article.

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