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Spilling the details


Recent underground gasoline leaks have underscored public concern over the safety of drinking water - and the importance of notifying neighbors when problems arise. The leak traced to a service station in Fallston two years ago raised a ruckus not only because of the impact of gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, on local well water, but because many residents weren't informed of what was happening. It was classic government "need-to-know" secrecy, and it provoked an outcry.

Last year, the General Assembly approved a law requiring the Maryland Department of the Environment and local health departments to notify anyone living within a half-mile of a significant fuel discharge that could cause serious groundwater contamination. By all accounts, the law has worked well. There have been at least 10 leaks where appropriate notification has taken place.

But that has raised an important question: What about all the leaks that have taken place in the past? According to MDE, there have been at least 2,000 such incidents over the last decade or so, and more than half (about 1,100) are still open - meaning the spills are still being cleaned up. Strictly speaking, the law does not require any additional public notification in those cases.

That was clearly a mistake. To their credit, agency officials are now considering how to go about properly informing neighbors about those older fuel leaks. MDE Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick should make this effort a top priority, particularly for spills in the rural parts of Carroll, Baltimore and Harford counties where residents depend on well water, and the fractured rock geology can cause MTBE to be a particularly difficult problem.

The process of notification is not without challenges. It will require poring over thousands of pages of records and developing informational mailings that are likely to spawn public concern. But the effort should move forward with haste, and any cost associated with it should ultimately be borne by those who caused the spills.

The health effects of MTBE aren't entirely clear, but because it has been linked to cancer in rats, it's reasonable to be cautious. The 25,000-gallon leak reported this year from an Exxon station in Jacksonville was a reminder of how disastrous such incidents can be. No potential victim of such a spill should be left in the dark - whether that incident took place 48 hours ago or 48 months ago.

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