At least seven households near Hampstead will have their private well water filtered at state expense while officials seeks the source of a suspected gasoline additive leak that has contaminated wells in about two dozen homes nearby.
Residents of the Hillcrest Avenue neighborhood, just east of the Carroll County town's boundary, and Hampstead officials were told this year that water samples taken by the county Health Department last year contained the potentially carcinogenic additive MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), authorities said.
Five carbon filtering systems have been installed in private homes there in the past several months, and two more are scheduled to be installed, said Richard J. McIntire, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. Monitoring wells also will be drilled in the area.
Each system can cost as much as $3,000, and the state is paying - for now - while the source of the leak is sought, McIntire said.
In a June 21 notice of intent, MDE has demanded access to one suspect property, saying that if the owners do not cooperate, officials will take legal action to remove what is believed to be an improperly abandoned gasoline storage tank on Hillcrest Street.
The Hillcrest Avenue contamination is the latest of 19 open cases in Carroll dating from the mid-1990s that involve MTBE, according to MDE files, McIntire said. The gasoline additive has been the subject of angry meetings recently in Harford County, where a wave of well contamination by MTBE was discovered near a gasoline station.
Installing carbon filters, drilling new wells and removing underground tanks were methods used to alleviate contamination in the past 10 years at several Carroll sites, according to MDE Oil Control Program records, McIntire said. But most of the cases involved one or two wells with low readings, and no action was reported. A handful of cases came from residents who had their wells tested.
The largest MTBE case in Carroll was in Finksburg in 2002 and involved 23 wells. Three filtering systems were installed, including one at a gasoline station identified as the source. The owner paid the costs of the systems and reimbursed residents for the bottled water they used while the case was investigated.
Doris J. Edwards, president of the now-defunct Carroll County Trails Association and a former board member of the Finksburg Planning Area Council, said the problem seems to have been resolved. But at the time, she said, residents were not happy that they received no official notification - only learning about the contamination when a neighbor heard at the gas station that the water had made someone ill.
"Nothing was said until we started saying something," said Edwards, who has a young grandson and bought bottled water for several months. "It's important that people know, important that people know if something is wrong with their water. Look at Harford County."
Edwards, who did not have any filtering equipment installed in her home, said she paid to have her water tested a month ago. "It was fine."
In the Hillcrest Avenue neighborhood, Joan H. Porterfield showed a row of tanks and filters crowding an alcove in her basement.
"They test at the well and in between," she said, gesturing along the system, beginning at the pump where water enters the home. "Here we've got it. Here it's getting rid of it --- and here it's gone.
"It's as clean as anything you'd buy at the store," said Porterfield, who used bottled water for about three months until March or April. That's when the state had the system installed at no cost to her after MTBE showed up in her water at levels higher than the federal standard.
The equipment includes two free-standing 4-foot-tall carbon filters and a slightly larger tank, added to eliminate iron that had caused a rust problem, a 3 1/2 - foot water-softener tank, and a monitor.
State buys filters
Cleanup money for such systems comes from the State Oil Fund, which levies 3 cents per barrel on all petroleum products imported into Maryland, said McIntire.
MDE sometimes holds public meetings - as in Fallston and Finksburg - but state law requires only that the department notify those directly affected by contamination or a planned corrective action, he said. Some homeowners have expressed concerns about privacy and property values.
According to state records, MDE opened the case in Hampstead on Sept. 10 last year, McIntire said.
The Porterfields learned about the water problem when they found a blue tag hanging on the front doorknob Dec. 4, notifying them that a water sample had been taken by the Carroll County Health Department, she said.
A letter dated Jan. 15 from the county said the test showed 65.7 parts per billion of MTBE, she said. The Porterfields and six others had readings ranging from 40 to 290 parts per billion, according to her copies of reports on homes along Hillcrest Avenue and Summit, Hillcrest and Taylor streets.
Residents of an apartment building on Hillcrest Avenue had complained last fall that "their water tasted like gasoline - that's how it got started," Porterfield said.
Hampstead Town Manager Ken Decker said he learned about the MTBE in the Hillcrest Avenue area in a Jan. 22 letter from MDE. He said Hampstead's water supply has sporadically registered only trace amounts of MTBE in its regular monitoring reports.
"It's been around for a number of years and in a number of places," said Charles L. Zeleski, the Carroll health department's acting director of environmental health. "It moves quickly through water, it shows up very quickly, and it spreads over a larger area than the other components of gasoline, which are heavier."
MTBE is used to make gasoline burn more cleanly and has been required since 1990 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in states such as Maryland with a summer ozone pollution problem.
Although the EPA says there are no studies of its effects in drinking water, the additive has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals when inhaled at high doses, so the agency does not recommend drinking water with more than 20 parts per billion of MTBE.
The federal agency once considered eliminating MTBE or limiting its use, but the issue has since been referred to Congress.
While the additive helps clean the air, in water it travels farther and faster than other gasoline additives that are known toxins and does not break down in the soil, Zeleski said.
The EPA set its lowest action level at 20 parts per billion, where people could detect it, McIntire said. MDE uses the same standard for individual wells but has a lower threshold of 10 parts per billion for community or public water systems - the point where cases are referred to its Oil Control Program, he said.
Statewide, MDE now pays for 49 carbon filtering units where a responsible party has not been identified, including the Hillcrest Avenue systems, McIntire said. Another 329 private wells with MTBE above the 20 parts per billion level are being treated at private expense, including nine wells at the Harford County site.
Other cases in Carroll involving MTBE included one with 14 wells near a 7-Eleven store in the 7600 block of Woodbine Ave., where a new well was drilled for the shopping center and two homes had carbon filters installed, McIntire said.
North of Hampstead, Manchester had four wells that in 1999 reached a high of 52 parts per billion, officials said, but levels dropped when some underground tanks were removed.
In Hampstead, Decker said, the homes in the Hillcrest neighborhood are on small lots with private wells, which are not allowed by current zoning.
Rather than have the basement filtration systems remain indefinitely, he suggested that the town connect the homes to its public system, which plans a new water line to that area.