Baltimore County

Jacksonville Exxon spill: 5 years later

Whatever the pressures of his city law practice, Robert Lazzaro could count on finding refuge at the end of the day at his home in Jacksonville, where the back deck offered quiet, a hot tub and a woodland view. That changed five years ago after an Exxon station less than a mile away leaked about 25,000 gallons of regular unleaded gasoline into the groundwater, contaminating dozens of wells and casting a shadow of fear over the small community in northern Baltimore County.

"It's a constant worry, it's a constant stressor," said Lazzaro. When he leaves home in the morning and heads for the office, he said, "I feel a little less stressed out."Lazzaro told his story in Baltimore County Circuit Court recently in a second civil lawsuit, brought by about 150 plaintiffs, stemming from one of the worst gasoline spills in state history. The trial opened in January and is expected to last until June. Meanwhile, the $150 million verdict against ExxonMobil in the first lawsuit filed by different plaintiffs is being challenged by the oil company in the Maryland Court of Appeals.

ExxonMobil, which has not yet started to present witnesses, accepts responsibility for the leak but argues about the extent of the injury. A lawyer for the company, James F. Sanders, told a plaintiff's witness on the stand a few weeks ago that her house near the gas station was "one of those properties we know we damaged. The question is what kind of damage and how much."

That question is being sorted out day to day by those who live and work in the village. Life has returned to normal in some ways, and much depends on where you are in relation to the course the gasoline took through the ground.

No reports of physical illness linked to gasoline contamination have surfaced in the Jacksonville area, where there is no public water system and more than 4,000 households depend on private wells for drinking water and septic systems.

In interviews and trial testimony, residents say the accident has taken a toll in lost sleep and property values, brought anxiety, stress-related head and muscle aches, and a litany of daily inconveniences: short showers, bottled water, discolored laundry.

Residents worry about health effects that might yet appear, about the reliability of government standards for certain contaminants, and whether the intersection of Jarrettsville Pike, Paper Mill and Sweet Air roads - where the Exxon station once stood - will ever be fully restored as the community's commercial center.

"There's a cloud over this neighborhood," said Douglas E. Oakley, president of the Greater Jacksonville Association. "There's a cloud, no doubt."

At Four Corners

Oakley was sitting alongside former association president Glen A. Thomas in a booth at Chops Restaurant & Lounge in the Manor Center shopping area at Four Corners, where Jarrettsville Pike crosses Paper Mill and Sweet Air roads. The restaurant opened five months ago, representing a significant recent commercial investment in the area that was at the center of the cleanup that began in late winter 2006.

Scores of workers in hard hats and orange vests converged from around the country to pump out the gasoline and seek out underground contamination, eventually drilling 284 test wells up to 615 feet deep outside stores, offices, in backyards and front lawns.

If, as Thomas recalled, it then looked like a "war zone," the area now resembles a combination town center and water treatment station in the midst of the Loch Raven Reservoir watershed.

The site of the former Exxon station on Jarrettsville Pike and a spot behind the M&T Bank on Sweet Air Road have been fenced, partly concealing boxy, putty-colored structures containing gear used to draw out gasoline vapor and groundwater. The treatment system runs water through a purification system, checks it for contamination and returns it to the Sawmill and the Greene Branch tributaries. About 10,700 gallons of liquid gasoline have been pumped out; the rest has mixed with the groundwater.

Five years later, the pumps still run day and night, treating about 32 gallons of water a minute, 77 million gallons so far, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment. Under an agreement with the MDE, ExxonMobil has until June 2014 to finish the job of treating groundwater and gasoline vapor. As recently as the last few months, new test wells have been drilled northeast of the old Exxon site.

Between tests ordered by the state and by the Peter Angelos law firm, which is representing plaintiffs in the current case, 396 wells at homes and businesses were tested in Jacksonville. Most are clustered in a rough diagonal pattern extending about a half-mile southwest and three-quarters of a mile northeast of the Exxon station. Within that boundary, test results can vary widely from one block to the next, even from one house to the next.

About 70 percent of the tested wells showed traces of methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, a gasoline additive that has been linked to cancer in some laboratory studies of animals. The amounts range from estimates of less than 1 part per billion up to the Maryland limit of 20 parts per billion.

Wells at 12 homes and businesses exceeded the Maryland limit, according to the MDE. In those cases, the state required Exxon to install a carbon filtration system and conduct regular water tests.

Whether the pumping station grounds owned or leased by Exxon will ever again be used as commercial property is unclear; neither is it clear how long or to how many residents Exxon will be supplying bottled water. A spokeswoman for ExxonMobil said she could not answer any questions because of a gag order imposed in the case by Baltimore County Circuit Judge Robert N. Dugan.

Thomas, the association president when the accident occurred, spoke in an interview of the "uncertainty and the anxiety" even now. He wonders about the reliability of state standards for MTBE contamination, which vary from a low of 10 parts per billion in New York to 240 in Michigan and Texas.

The Environmental Protection Agency has set no national standard for the compound, which was added widely to gasoline starting in the late 1970s to increase octane and reduce emissions. Since 2003, states have been phasing it out, and it is no longer used in Maryland. The EPA website makes no definitive statement about MTBE and human health, but urges a limit in water of 20 to 40 parts per billion.

At the upper limit, you can start to smell an odor somewhat like turpentine. For weeks, many Jacksonville residents say, they could smell gasoline in backyards and basements near where the contamination was most severe.

If the health impact remains to be seen, Thomas said, it's clear residents want their town center back.

"People are upset about how the town looks," he said, "having a stockade fence in the equivalent of three commercial properties" in the heart of the village.

Real estate effects

Those who live and work in Jacksonville take some measure of the spill's impact in terms of real estate, though calculations of sales, prices and empty storefronts are complicated by the fact that the leak occurred near the market peak and not long before the beginning of a years-long decline.

At Manor Center, five of the 14 storefronts are vacant, but it is not clear whether that has anything to do with the gasoline leak. The property manager did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Water tests showed the Manor Center shopping area east of the Exxon station and the Paper Mill Village office and retail center to the north were not affected by contamination. But perception is another matter, said Heidi Hildreth, owner of Heidi's Hair Connection in Manor Center.

"People thought we had a problem when we didn't," said Hildreth, adding that she believes the shop lost a few customers because of the leak. "We've had clientele who didn't want to get shampoos here."

Patrick Ziemann, a server at Chops, said that when the restaurant opened in November, people would start to ask for water, then switch to a soft drink. It doesn't happen much anymore, he said.

Chops owner Christopher Lambros said he relied on MDE reports that the water in Manor Center was safe and went ahead with his investment in the restaurant. The free-standing building has been home to several restaurants since the late 1970s but was vacant for about six months before Chops opened.

Lambros and his partners put about $200,000 into renovations. Thomas said he believes that is the biggest single commercial investment in the village center since the spill.

"The way I looked at it was this," said Lambros. "If the shopping center was affected to the point where it wasn't functional, they would have shut it down."

By at least one account, the market for area home sales just about shut down when news of the gasoline leak broke in February 2006.

"It went to hell in a handbasket," said Louisa M. Townsend, a realtor with O'Conor & Mooney at the Manor Center. "I don't think a house sold for months after that."

She said her agency started to put disclaimers in sales contracts for all homes in the Phoenix ZIP code, which includes Jacksonville, saying that there had been a spill at the Exxon station in early 2006. The statement recommends a water test for gasoline contamination along with any other tests routinely required by lenders to approve a mortgage for a house on well water.

Some sellers, she said, had water quality tests done themselves and included good results in their brochures. She said sales have picked up in the past couple of years, but estimates that the leak could be costing sellers 10 percent or 15 percent on their price.

"There absolutely needs to be a disclaimer in the contract," said Tom Levin, a Realtor with Keller Williams Realty.

He provided a list of 23 homes sold by a Realtor within a mile of the Exxon site where sales were completed in the past 24 months. Six had well tests showing trace MTBE amounts or estimated amounts of 4 parts per billion or less, five showed no detectable contamination, and 12 did not appear on well test lists provided by the MDE and could not be checked.

"Values look like they're holding," Levin said.

'A little piece of heaven'

A different picture emerges from court testimony of witnesses seeking damages from ExxonMobil. Witness after witness has taken the stand to talk about how the leak has diminished their enjoyment of their home and its market appeal.

"I personally would never buy a home in this community based on everything I know now," said Nancy Pugliese of Jackson Cabin Road, who moved to Jacksonville from the Chicago suburbs in 1998 so her husband could take a job in this area. At first, she said, she fell in love with Jacksonville.

"It was just beautiful," she testified. "To me, it was like a little piece of heaven."

Her voice broke as she spoke of her life in Jacksonville before the spill.

Then came workers with heavy equipment and bright lights working into the night. The situation strained relations with her family and her neighbors, she said, and she started having headaches and neck pain, which she believed were caused by stress.

Tests indicate that her well was clean, but contamination was found at other wells on her street and nearby on Hampshire Glen Court, where water at four homes exceeded the state limit for MTBE. She told the court she did not see how she could ever sell her house.

Sanders, the ExxonMobil lawyer, asked: "Are you aware that homes in your neighborhood have been bought and sold since the spill?"

"Yes," she replied.

Robert Lazzaro lives on Constantine Drive, where well tests at three houses showed traces of MTBE contamination, the highest one-half part per billion. He testified that his well tested clean seven times, but he found that little comfort.

"You can test positive one day and negative the next," he said. "There cannot be a high degree of confidence."

The family still uses bottled water, he said, no longer uses the hot tub and stopped taking long baths. He told the court he has suffered symptoms of depression and passed out in his bedroom one night, an episode he attributes to anxiety. He bought his house for $238,000 in 1994, put about $100,000 into improvements and figures it could have been worth about $800,000 by now. But to whom?

"Who in their right mind is going to buy that house?" he asked on the stand. "Our home has become a prison. We are trapped. I don't believe we can sell it."

An ExxonMobil lawyer, Thomas Dundon, told Lazzaro that "a lot of houses that have contamination have sold in Jacksonville."

"That's astonishing to me," Lazzaro said.

Asked by a plaintiff's lawyer how much compensation he thought was due to him and his wife, Lazzaro said: "I would say $1 million each. I mean, how do you measure that?"