Until Memorial Day weekend, Pat and Carl Morgan had no idea what methyl tertiary butyl ether, better known as MTBE, was.
But that Friday, May 28, Pat Morgan was closing the family's Mustang auto parts business when she got what she described as a "somewhat frantic" phone call from an employee of a company that had taken a sample of the shop's well water -- with no explanation of why -- about a week earlier.
"The caller said, 'Don't drink the water,' and 'We're going to bring over bottled water,'" she said yesterday. "They said our MTBE level was at 302."
The couple, who have owned Dad's Classic Mustang Parts on Scarff Road in southwestern Harford County for more than 15 years, said the caller gave no indication whether a 302 parts per billion reading of MTBE in their water was good or bad.
"But with them bringing over bottled water right away," Carl Morgan said, "we assumed it was bad."
Now, about a month after that conversation -- which the Morgans said was followed by the immediate delivery of bottled water and the hasty installation of an expensive well-water filtration system -- they are beginning to realize just how serious the situation is.
MTBE is a gasoline additive used since 1990 to make the fuel burn cleaner.
The Morgans' property abuts an Exxon service station where ground-water tests have revealed MTBE at 1,300 times the 20 parts per billion level that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognizes as safe. The EPA has called this one of the worst well contaminations ever recorded in the state.
The Morgans' property is at the bottom of a gentle slope leading from the gas station, which Carl Morgan believes is why their well has registered by far the highest readings of any property in the area.
Patty Delaney, a spokeswoman for Exxon Mobil Corp., said the company's investigation is in progress and the state has recognized that the gas station is not the only potential source of the contaminant.
Still, the company has supplied bottled water to all residents within a half-mile of the station, she said, and anyone in whose water MTBE was detected, even at trace levels, was offered the option of getting a water-filtration system installed. So far, the company has provided those to 20 water users.
"We're doing everything we possibly can to try to figure this out," Delaney said.
Although the Morgans do not live at the Scarff Road property, they rent out a large two-story house there.
When the current tenant moves at the end of this month, they said, they won't feel comfortable allowing anyone else to live there despite the presence of a filtration system, paid for by Exxon Mobil, in the home's basement.
"With the levels as high as they are, if the filtration fails and the person living there gets sick ... we could be liable," said Carl Morgan, adding that a lawyer he recently consulted echoed that thought.
A dozen houses line the stretch of Scarff Road behind the Exxon gas station, which sits at the intersection of Routes 152 and 165, near the Baltimore County line west of Bel Air. Scarff is a quiet, narrow road -- with horse stables and roaming goats -- tucked behind busier streets.
Residents there say they're not only upset about the potential health risks that accompany the high levels of MTBE, but also angry that neither the gas station nor the state disclosed the information sooner. There's evidence that high levels of MTBE were detected in 1991, but most residents have become aware of the issue only in the past month.
"I first became aware of this on June 1 when they came to test my water," said Paula Goodwin, 34, who lives in the 2800 block of Scarff Road, about 1,500 feet from the gas station. "When the guy told me that I couldn't even cook with the water, I was pretty scared."
Goodwin said she is angry at state officials for not warning residents sooner.
"I have lived here for three years and I was pregnant during that time," she said. "The state has just as much of a share [of blame] in this because they never made any of us aware of this. I'm so disappointed at our state. There are not words that you can print."
State officials say they plan to make more details about the contamination investigation available to residents soon.
Down the road from the Morgan property, 85-year-old Edward Stifler and his ailing wife, Louise, who have lived in Upper Crossroads since birth, were drinking water from bottles and an office-style water cooler in their kitchen. But the couple still washes in the water from a well.
"I don't know what to do," Edward Stifler said. He gestured to a newspaper article about the potential risks of MTBE and added, "Is it safe to use the water? I don't know."
Tests at their property indicated trace amounts of MTBE recently, Stifler said, so he asked Exxon Mobil to install a filter. The company also supplied the water cooler and bottled water, he said.
Stifler said his wife, whose maiden name is Scarff and whose late parents owned much of the farmland in the area, was in the final stages of inheriting much of the acreage, which for many years was a dairy farm. Louise Stifler, 82, is bedridden with several illnesses and was unable to talk.
But now Stifler said he fears that the property's value will decline significantly because of the water.
"We've worked here all of our lives. We thought we were going to be able to sell the land and come out of the deal with some money," he said.
"What I'm worried about ... is that it has all gone to pot."
Sun staff writer Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.