When more than three tanker trucks' worth of gasoline leaked from an Exxon station, Jacksonville residents worried their wells would be contaminated.
But a year and a half into the cleanup efforts, they fear not only having tainted water, but having no water at all.
ExxonMobil Corp. is seeking permission from Maryland's Department of the Environment to pump up to 68,500 gallons of groundwater a day, in an attempt to contain the plume of dissolved gasoline, until the cleanup is complete.
Some Jacksonville residents say they are concerned the operation will drain their wells. At the same time, many say they aren't confident that enough is being done by state environmental officials to make sure the water supply is protected.
"When it's your children drinking the water, it tends to be a more emotional issue," said Joe Bateman, who lives in an area of Jacksonville where recent tests have shown the presence of contaminants for the first time since the 26,000-gallon spill was reported at an Exxon station at Jarrettsville Pike, Paper Mill and Sweet Air roads.
The February 2006 spill was the largest threat to the drinking water in the northern Baltimore County community with a long history of contending with gasoline contamination from other service stations.
More than 80 wells drilled by Exxon after the leak are being used to recover gasoline vapors. And more than 140 monitoring wells are tested biweekly, monthly or quarterly.
No private wells have gone dry because of the cleanup, said Herb Meade, administrator of MDE's oil control program.
The agency has investigated six complaints about low well yields. Five of them were caused by mechanical or other problems with the wells, and one of the complaints remains under investigation, Meade said.
"Groundwater is a critical resource," said Meade. "Quantity has always been an issue in the Jacksonville area. ... The neighborhood is rightfully upset and leery about what ExxonMobil presents."
At a public hearing Thursday on Exxon's application for a permit to continue to pump groundwater, dozens of residents questioned the plan and whether the company would be held accountable if wells did go dry as a result of the cleanup.
"I think you're dealing with a trust factor," Ron Diedeman, a Jacksonville resident, said during the meeting.
Some residents are interested in hiring an independent expert to ensure that the best methods of removing the toxins are being used, said Glen Thomas, former president of the Greater Jacksonville Association and liaison for the group with Exxon and the MDE.
The treated groundwater is being directed into two nearby streams, but the process does not "recharge" the underground aquifer that provides water for the wells of business and homes, all of which rely on well water, environmental officials acknowledged at the Thursday night meeting.
However, the officials said, Exxon would be required to install water tanks, deepen wells or replace wells that run dry as a result of the pumping. The decision about whether the cleanup is the cause of a dry well is made by the environmental agency.
Beth Snyder, a spokeswoman for Exxon, said the company's contingency plan has been filed with MDE, and made available to the public.
She said yesterday that she could not respond more specifically to the residents' concerns.
MDE officials said the company is not seeking an increase in the amount of water it could pump. It was authorized to pump the water under its emergency cleanup plan, and the 68,500-gallon amount is the maximum during a very rainy period, the officials said.
A decision about the permit will be made by a department hearing officer in about a month, Meade said. Written comments will be accepted for the next two weeks. Comments may be submitted to John Grace, Maryland Department of the Environment, 1800 Washington Blvd, Baltimore 21230.
Exxon has installed 14 filtration systems in private wells because of contamination or the probability of it. And MTBE, a gasoline additive, has been detected in a dozen private wells, Meade said.
Because the cleanup of smaller fuel leaks from service stations in the 1980s lasted for more than a decade, residents said they are concerned about how long this cleanup will take.
Meade said he's not willing to predict how long this cleanup will take. But he said, "Cleanup has gone at a much faster pace than the department ever expected."