MTBE in wells focus of meeting

Hampstead town officials have invited residents to a long-sought meeting with an official of the Maryland Department of the Environment to answer questions and to consider remedies for the presence of the gasoline additive MTBE in some wells in a neighborhood east of town.

The meeting has been set for 7 p.m. Jan. 26 at Town Hall, said Hampstead Town Manager Ken Decker, who sent letters Thursday inviting 40 to 50 area residents. Herbert M. Meade, administrator of the Waste Management Administration's Oil Control Program, is scheduled to attend.


"We hope MDE can answer questions," Decker said. "We know people up there are concerned about this, and we think MDE needs to show a sense of urgency about not only finding the source of the problem, but a long-term plan to deal with it."

He said town officials plan to raise the possibility of annexing the neighborhood and connecting it to public water, which would bypass the need for remedies such as filtration systems. The costs might be less expensive in the long run, he said.


"We will provide information about connecting to the town water supply," Decker said.

Water lines already are being run into that area to serve the old Hampstead School, which is being transformed into senior housing.

MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, is an additive to make gasoline burn more cleanly. Since 1990, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has required its use in states such as Maryland that have ozone pollution in the summer. Studies have shown that inhaling high doses of MTBE causes cancer in laboratory animals, but its effect on humans when present in drinking water are unknown.

The MTBE investigation began in the Hillcrest Avenue area in September 2003 after a tenant of an apartment building there complained of a gasoline smell in the water.

The EPA set its lowest action level for MTBE occurrence at 20 parts per billion, where people could detect it, said Richard J. McIntire, an MDE spokesman. The department uses the same standard for individual wells, but has a lower threshold of 10 ppb for community or public water systems. At this point, cases are referred to the Oil Control Program.

Some Hillcrest Avenue-area homes had readings ranging from 40 to 290 ppb, officials said.

Wells were tested along Summit, Taylor and Hillcrest streets, Hillcrest Avenue, and into the 4100 block of Black Rock Road and the 4200 block of Upper Beckleysville Road.

Since January last year, 10 carbon-filtration systems have been installed at households in the neighborhood, and no MTBE readings since have registered above the recommended level, MDE and county health officials said.


The filters cost about $3,000 each and were installed at state expense - at least until a source of the contamination can be pinpointed, said McIntire.

"We have as many as three probable responsible parties," McIntire said. "Once the responsible party or parties is found, they will have to take over the maintenance costs and reimburse the state for whatever money has been spent so far."

Some possible sources have been investigated, most recently focusing upon the Shell Jiffy Mart on South Main Street in town, Decker said. Other sites investigated have included a closed gasoline station and a fuel tank at a private residence.

In Harford County, the MDE response to MTBE contamination that was suspected to have originated at a Fallston-area service station provoked heated criticism of the state agency from residents at meetings in the Upper Crossroads area.

In early September, after Hampstead first asked MDE for a meeting, Decker said he hoped the state agency would be more forthcoming than it had with Harford County. By last month, having heard nothing definite about a meeting, town officials prepared to call a meeting.

There have been few calls or complaints to the town, Decker said.


"The neighborhood has been amazingly quiet, nothing like the Fallston-area folks," he said.

Monitoring and testing the water continues, said Charles L. Zeleski, Carroll's acting director of environmental health. The Health Department has not received any calls from residents, he said.

"In our investigations, we haven't really picked up anything that would be significant, as far as new contaminated wells. We have found a couple of wells with trace amounts of MTBE," Zeleski said.

While other components of gasoline are better-known hazards, MTBE is a problem because it does not disintegrate and can travel farther and faster, said Zeleski.

In some cases, he said, "there has not been an actual leak in the piping or tank," and investigators are considering whether the MTBE may have been released into the air and washed back into the ground water.