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17 Upper Crossroads wells contaminated, tests find

At least 17 wells in the Upper Crossroads community have been contaminated with a toxic substance that may have leaked from a gasoline service station, according to state and county officials.

In at least three homes, a dentist's office and at the Exxon station itself, the presence of MTBE - methyl tertiary butyl ether - is well above the state level of 20 parts per billion considered safe for consumption.

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The gasoline station is at Route 165 and Route 152.

At one home close to the station, a test revealed that the MTBE level in the well was at 300 parts per billion.

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"It's very scary," said Paula Goodwin, who lives in the 2800 block of Scarff Road with daughters ages 2 and 12. Testing found the MTBE level at her home to be 36.3 parts per billion.

"I can't get a clear answer from anyone on what are the ramifications of having MTBE in our water," she said. "I would like some information on the impact of this on my kids and myself. I've heard that at high levels MTBE can be a carcinogen, and I don't know if I have sacrificed 10 years of my life."

Rick Hicks, who has leased the station from Exxon since it opened 17 years ago, said the problem has not been traced to the station.

"We've never had a leak, a spill or an accident," he said yesterday. "And we've always run in compliance with Maryland state and [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] standards, and really there's never been a problem.

"Most of the homeowners around there I'm friends with," Hicks added. "The last thing I want to do is hurt anybody."

MTBE is used in gasoline to boost the octane rating and to make it burn cleaner. It can make water foul-tasting and smelly.

Susan Kelly, director of environmental health at the Harford County Health Department, said her office is aware of the situation but "does not yet know the full extent of the problem."

She said more information should be available Tuesday, when representatives from her office, Exxon, the Maryland Department of the Environment and local politicians will meet to discuss the situation.

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While the Exxon station is the primary suspect according to county and state officials, Patty Delaney, spokeswoman for Exxon Mobil Corp., said, "At this time we are not speculating on the source."

"The company's first priority is the health and safety of the residents," Delaney said.

The company has been working with the state and county to determine the cause of the contamination, she said.

The company has tested 47 wells in the community but has received results on only 20, she said.

The company has been distributing bottled water to residents who are being told not to drink or cook with their well water.

According to Goodwin, the company paid for a $6,000 water purification system to be installed in her home to reduce the MTBE in her well to a safe level.

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Veronica "Roni" L. Chenowith, the County Council member who represents the Upper Crossroads area, was critical of Exxon Mobil's response to the problem.

"I feel that they have handled it poorly," she said. "The residents are not getting a lot of information. They are not giving the residents a terrific comfort level."

She said there are not a lot of hard facts on MTBE's effects on people.

"I understand the residents' concerns," Chenowith said. "I want to get to the bottom of this as soon as I can, so I can ease the people's concerns."

Chenowith said she also wants to arrange a community meeting as soon as possible so that residents will know what is happening and have a chance to ask questions.

"Nobody has a lot of information yet," she said. "Everybody seems to be sitting in the dark. I'm not sure to what extent the Maryland Department of the Environment is out of the loop."

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Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the state Department of the Environment, said the investigation of the MTBE leak is still pretty much in the beginning stage.

He advised residents to contact the Harford County Health Department if their water has a suspicious taste or smell.

In a letter it mailed Friday to people living in the Upper Crossroads area, the Department of the Environment noted that high levels of MTBE had been detected in the water at the service station and in the neighborhood as early as 1998.

Goodwin said she first learned of the possibility of her well being contaminated on June 1 when a representative of an environmental company hired by Exxon Mobil came to her door to say it would be testing her well.

The results came back Tuesday.

"Now I would like to know what they are going to do about that gas station," she said.

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Sun staff writer Laura Cadiz contributed to this article.


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