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Exxon presents first witnesses in Balto. Co. gas spill trial

ExxonMobil Corp. lawyers presented their first witnesses Monday in Baltimore County Circuit Court, opening their defense in a lengthy jury trial after an underground gasoline leak in 2006 — one of the most serious in Maryland's history.

Two witnesses — an ExxonMobil territory manager and the then-president of the Greater Jacksonville Association — gave their accounts of the day they learned of the leak of about 25,000 gallons of regular unleaded gasoline and the weeks after, as fear spread through the Jacksonville community of about 4,000 households in northern Baltimore County.

About 150 plaintiffs represented by the Peter G. Angelos law firm are suing ExxonMobil for compensatory and punitive damages in a trial that began in January. The plaintiffs finished presenting the last of about 300 witnesses last week, and the defense is expected to present a couple of witnesses a day for the next four or five weeks.

The case before Judge Robert Dugan is the second trial in the Jacksonville spill. A jury in the first case awarded $150 million to a separate group of plaintiffs in 2009, a decision that ExxonMobil is challenging in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

Glen A. Thomas, the former community association president, told the court that he began alerting residents near the Exxon station soon after getting a call Feb. 17, 2006, from an official of the Maryland Department of the Environment. He said Herbert Meade, then in charge of MDE's oil control program, told him that a "substantial" amount of gasoline had turned up in a test well drilled at the gas station site where Jarrettsville Pike meets Paper Mill and Sweet Air roads.

Within days, Thomas said, "news cameras and helicopters" converged on and over the gas station site. Anxious residents gathered by the hundreds at two meetings in the next few weeks, he said, first at the association's regularly scheduled meeting days after the spill was discovered, then at a special session on March 9.

According to minutes of the first meeting attended by 250 people at Jacksonville Elementary School, Meade told the group that "a leak of this magnitude is unheard of today." The minutes projected onto a screen in the courtroom showed that ExxonMobil public affairs specialist Betsy Eaton "apologized for the problem."

About 700 gathered at the March 9 meeting at Cockeysville Middle School, Thomas said, and some were "standing up, yelling and screaming. I tried to keep it orderly. There was a great deal of anger and anxiety at that point."

In response to questions from plaintiffs lawyer Charles Bernstein, Thomas said ExxonMobil did not offer to help contact residents and he did not ask for help immediately after hearing about the spill from the MDE. He said he was able to reach about a dozen people who lived on one street southwest of the station, where Meade expected the contamination to go. As it turned out, the contamination also flowed to the north and east.

"As far as you know, Exxon wasn't contacting anyone, just letting them drink the water?" Bernstein asked.

"I guess so," Thomas said.

Russell L. Bowen, an ExxonMobil territory manager, described a phone call he received from the Exxon station manager on Feb. 16 after she noticed that figures on regular unleaded gasoline sold and the inventory were not adding up correctly.

"She was kind of very excited and upset," Bowen said of manager Andrea Loiero. He said she did not suspect a leak and told him no fuel leak alarms had gone off.

As it turned out, the leak had gone undetected since Jan. 13, when a contractor working on the underground fuel system accidentally drilled into a pressurized gasoline line. Another contractor sent to the scene did not realize there was a leak and reset the leak detector. According to a consent decree between the MDE and ExxonMobil, that recalibration "may have allowed the continuous release of gasoline to go undetected."

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