Exxon fined $4 million for gas leak

In what officials say is the largest environmental penalty ever levied by the state, ExxonMobil Corp. has agreed to pay $4 million to the Maryland Department of the Environment for a 26,000-gallon gasoline spill at a Baltimore County service station almost three years ago.

Under the agreement announced yesterday, the oil giant could face an additional annual penalty of $1 million if it does not stick to a cleanup schedule that could last several more years in Jacksonville.The settlement stemmed from a $12 million lawsuit filed against ExxonMobil by Maryland's attorney general, Douglas F. Gansler. He said in a statement yesterday that the agreement was a significant victory for the environment and residents of the area "who have had to live with this contamination for too long."

The settlement was more than twice as large as a $1.9 million civil penalty levied against the Potomac Electric Power Company for a leak in April 2000 that sent about 111,000 gallons of oil into the Patuxent River from an underground pipeline at the Chalk Point Generating Station, the state's largest power plant.

"The size of this penalty is commensurate with the risk to critical groundwater supplies," said Shari T. Wilson, the secretary of the environment, referring to the area surrounding the Jacksonville gas station, where residents rely on the underground water table.

ExxonMobil yesterday issued a statement expressing its "sincere regrets" for the leak, stating that it has kept lines of communication open with the community while spending more than $34 million on a clean-up that has recovered the "vast majority" of the release.

"ExxonMobil takes its environmental responsibility very seriously and will continue to devote significant resources to remediate the Jacksonville site," the company stated.

Glen A. Thomas, who at the time of the spill was president of the Greater Jacksonville Association, which represents the interests of some 400 households in the area, said yesterday that he was pleased to hear of the size of the settlement.

Thomas, a 20-year resident of the area whose home is 1.5 miles northeast of the gas station, said studies of wells on at least seven private properties near the station had shown "clear contamination."

He said he approved of the requirement that ExxonMobil stay on top of cleanup efforts. "It wouldn't take much for them to say at some point, 'We've done what we care to do,' and walk away," said Thomas, who acts as a liaison with MDE officials.

People are still concerned about the long-term consequences of the spill, said Debi Meushaw, branch vice president of the Coldwell Banker office across Jarrettsville Pike from the gas station. "It has been a disruption to the community," she said.

Jo Rand, who owns Lovely Manors, a nursery and gift shop near the station, said the spill affected businesses around the intersection, even if their water, like hers, was not contaminated. She recalled how some placed signs in their windows assuring people they served bottled water.

"Four million for Exxon is nothing - it's an insult," Rand said, adding that the penalty money should go to the community association. "It's really the community that suffered."

Over a period of five weeks beginning in January 2006, about 26,700 gallons of regular unleaded gasoline leaked from an underground storage tank after a worker inadvertently punctured a pipe, the MDE said. The agency said that about 675 gallons of gas leeched into the ground each day for about 37 days.

ExxonMobil reported the leak in February 2006 and began the cleanup, the MDE said. About 10,700 gallons of liquid gasoline were recovered, and additional gasoline has been captured in vapor form. More cleanup is needed to remove gasoline vapor from the groundwater, the agency said.

Yesterday, a reddish-brown wooden fence with warning signs surrounded the former Exxon station at Jarrettsville Pike and Paper Mill Road.

A cream-colored pump-like structure sat next to the building - a groundwater treatment system that is part of the cleanup effort, according to workers.

The leak was the second-largest spill in Maryland of gas containing methyl tertiary butyl ether, a fuel additive used to reduce carbon monoxide and ozone levels caused by auto emissions, officials said. Residents near the gasoline spill remain concerned about groundwater and well contamination from MTBE, and have filed at least two other lawsuits against ExxonMobil in connection with the Jacksonville spill.

In one case, scheduled to go to trial next month in Baltimore County Circuit Court, about 80 residents are collectively seeking $1 billion. Jury selection is set to begin on Oct. 1. Attorney Stephen L. Snyder, whose firm is representing the Jacksonville residents, declined to comment on yesterday's settlement.

Snyder had previously said that his clients' complaints differ significantly from other lawsuits seeking damages related to MTBE. His suit accuses Exxon of negligence for allowing gas to leak from an underground fuel line at the station, of knowingly failing to report the leak for 37 days and of exaggerating the success of cleanup efforts.

ExxonMobil said the leak was reported to MDE as soon as it was discovered.

Another case, a class-action lawsuit filed by the law firm of Peter G. Angelos on behalf of 140 families affected by the gasoline spill, is scheduled for trial in May 2009. That case seeks $535 million in punitive damages and other relief.

"What the state has accepted as a payment from ExxonMobil does not begin to address the enormity of the damages experienced by the people in the Jacksonville community," said Mary V. Koch, an attorney handling the case.

Residents of Fallston - the site of the largest MTBE spill, a vapor leak discovered in 2004 - also have a lawsuit pending against the ExxonMobil. Other MTBE spills monitored by environmental officials include one at an elementary school in Forest Hill and another at a Randallstown development.

In the Jacksonville case, MDE officials said yesterday that, if necessary, they may require ExxonMobil to take additional remedial action to "fully address the contamination" of the area.

Horacio Tablada, the MDE's director of waste management, said by telephone yesterday said that ExxonMobil "has mobilized a lot of resources and equipment" for the cleanup, which required, among other things, the removal of all four underground tanks and the closure of the station.

"Right now the contamination is contained," said Tablada, who noted that the underground leak was the largest in Maryland's history. He said the station had been upgrading its tank system when a repair worker drilled through a sump pump and into a high-pressure pipe that carried regular gasoline.

Tablada said that when the gas station's managers discovered the leak some time later, they began looking for the cause but did not immediately alert environmental officials. As a result of the Jacksonville spill, state regulations now require that spills be reported immediately.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this article.

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