Exxon's sincerity over underground leak questioned at trial

The e-mail message was written in February 2007, a year after an underground leak at an Exxon gas station in northern Baltimore County fouled wells and hammered property values.

After cleanup efforts are completed, "no one will remember Phoenix," the message said, referring to the address of the Jacksonville area where the spill occurred. "Just another notch in the tree of life."

Written by an Exxon Mobil Corp. project manager to a colleague, the text was enlarged and projected onto a screen in a Towson courtroom yesterday by Stephen L. Snyder, a lawyer for 309 residents who are suing the oil company for at least $1 billion in Baltimore County Circuit Court. The trial, which began in October, is nearing its end.

By displaying the message, Snyder was questioning the sincerity of Exxon Mobil's public expressions of concern after the 26,000-gallon leak was discovered on Feb. 17, 2006, more than a month after it sprouted from a high-pressure pipe.

Snyder's adversary on the witness stand was Steven C. Polkey, global assets manager for Exxon Mobil and its highest-ranking executive to testify at the trial. Polkey sought to convey the company's regret at what occurred and its determination to make amends.

"We have taken responsibility for this spill," Polkey said Friday, his first day on the stand as a defense witness. "It should never have happened."

Nevertheless, he said, "There was nothing we knew at the time that would have given rise to us knowing this was going to happen."

But Snyder argued that Exxon Mobil had known for years that the leak-detection equipment it used at the Jacksonville station was substandard and in need of replacement. The equipment had been slated for updates that ultimately did not take place, Snyder said, because the company was more interested in making profits.

"You prioritized the almighty dollar over safety," the attorney said.

"No, we did not," Polkey replied. "That's not the company we are."

Yesterday, Snyder displayed another message - this one from Polkey himself, two weeks after the spill was found - congratulating some of his colleagues for their actions after the incident. "Guys, great job pulling this together, not least because of the uncontrollable bust from responding to Phoenix," he wrote.

Asked to explain what he meant by "uncontrollable bust," Polkey said he could not recall, but that he might have meant "the unplanned money we needed to spend" on cleaning up the site, a sum the company says has already amounted to more than $50 million. Exxon Mobil has also agreed to pay $4 million to the Maryland Department of the Environment, the largest such penalty ever levied by the state.

Snyder's cross-examination of the witness, during which he frequently interrupted Polkey's answers with sarcastic comments, was just as often thwarted by objections from Exxon Mobil attorney James F. Sanders.

"Let me finish my question," Snyder said at one point.

"No, let him finish his answer," Sanders responded.

At another point, after the plaintiffs' attorney had said Polkey did not answer a question, the normally composed witness lost his patience. "If you actually let me say something, you'd hear whether I was going to answer it," Polkey said.

At that, Judge Maurice W. Baldwin Jr. said, "Time out, gentlemen."

Polkey also took Snyder to task for misquoting company officials to the effect that they knew right away that the Jacksonville spill "could have been avoided." Snyder had pulled the phrase from a memo that actually referred to minor injuries sustained by Exxon contractors in unrelated incidents.

"It's pretty hard for me to see how you could misinterpret that," Polkey said.

For the most part, though, the judge gave Snyder room to pound away at the witness, even when using complex questions that called for instant analysis.

"I'll let him deal with the question," Baldwin said, again and again, to the defense's obvious frustration.

"Is this the conduct of an upright, straight-shooting corporation?" Snyder insisted. "Are you proud?"

"Of course I'm not proud," Polkey replied. "These things are an embarrassment to us."

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