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Harford well problem among Md.'s largest

Tests have revealed extremely high levels of a potentially cancer-causing chemical in the ground water - up to 26,000 parts per billion - at an Exxon gas station in the Harford County community of Upper Crossroads, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment, which is calling the incident one of the largest well contamination problems ever recorded in the state.

The concentration at the station, at Routes 152 and 165, is 1,300 times the 20-parts-per-billion level that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers safe.

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Herb Meade, an official with the oil control program of the state Department of the Environment, said yesterday that the high reading came from water in monitoring pipes below the underground gas storage tanks at the station.

He said the level of methyl tertiary butyl ether, commonly called MTBE, at a monitoring well at another site at the gas station registered 1,520 parts per billion during a test late last month.

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The state agency requires corrective action when the MTBE level reaches 20 parts per billion in the wells of homeowners. Well water begins to smell and taste like turpentine when the MTBE level tops the 20-parts-per- billion threshold.

MTBE, a flammable liquid that has been widely used since 1990 as a gasoline additive, makes gas burn more cleanly. The EPA has required its use in gas sold in states such as Maryland that have summertime ozone pollution problems.

Meade said the "department is convinced that the station is at least part of the source" but that its investigation has not yet "found a smoking gun."

So far, tests have detected no leaks in the gas storage tanks.

Tests of 145 wells in the neighborhood show 68 have traces of MTBE. Of these, eight wells exceeded the 20-parts-per-billion threshold.

During a more than three-hour community meeting Monday night at Fallston High School, attended by an estimated 700 people, residents and a member of the Harford County legislative delegation expressed their anger at learning about the MTBE leaks only two weeks ago, while state, county and Exxon officials have known about them since at least 1998.

Wells within a half-mile of the station are being tested. Residents living beyond the half-mile radius asked that their wells also be monitored.

There also were demands that Exxon Mobil Corp., which owns the station, install filtration systems in all homes in the area, not just those with traces of MTBE in their water.

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Del. Joanne S. Parrott, a Harford Republican who represents the area, said, "Six years of silence is mind-boggling."

Parrott said she didn't learn of the MTBE problem from the state or the county, but from a customer in a bank.

Ken Drake, a territory manager for Exxon Mobil, apologized at Monday's meeting for what he called inadequate communication. "In hindsight," he said, "we should have notified you more quickly."

He said the oil company would do a better job of keeping residents informed.


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