MTBE leak puts lives of families on pause

The Baltimore Sun

For more than a decade, Carl and Patricia Morgan rented out their two-story house in Fallston, but it has been vacant for nearly four years now.

The Morgans can't rent the well-kept house with the manicured lawn and they won't let their daughter live there either.

After a toxic gasoline chemical leaked into their well, the Morgans are afraid of their water.

Since 2004, residents like the Morgans have worried about their health, quality of life and diminished property values. Some residents have shouldered the expense of bottled water and maintenance costs on a filtration system, all while waiting to see what happens with the lawsuits against their former neighbor, a major oil company.

Over the years, Patricia Morgan said the contamination of the wells has been "forgotten and lost in the shuffle. Not much has changed. We feel we're in limbo."

The Morgans' property in the Upper Crossroads neighborhood backs up to the now-closed Exxon service station where the chemical leak was discovered. The site of the former station is blanketed with dandelions and scattered well heads. There's also a water treatment machine enclosed by a chain-link fence.

The gasoline additive, methyl tertiary butyl ether, MTBE, leaked from the station at the intersection of Routes 152 and 165 and affected more than 100 homes and businesses within a one-half mile radius. The spreading chemical also triggered the largest contamination of MTBE in Maryland, according to officials.

It could take at least a decade before the MTBE, detected in 155 Fallston wells, completely disappears, experts said.

In a New York federal court earlier this week , 12 major oil companies, including BP, Shell, Sunoco and Chevron, agreed to pay $423 million to settle MTBE-related lawsuits with 153 public water systems across the country. But ExxonMobil was not among the companies involved in the settlement, which is pending court approval.

Exxon will continue to defend itself from MTBE lawsuits, said company spokeswoman Prem Nair.

"As far as we are concerned, these suits are without merit," she said. "Our conduct did not cause either physical injury or damages; we plan to vigorously defend our position."

The contamination in Fallston became public nearly four years ago, prompting many residents in the neighborhood to stop using their wells and to rely on bottled water.

The second largest MTBE case in Maryland occurred in Baltimore County, about 10 miles from Fallston, where a 26,000-gallon gasoline spill was reported at a Jacksonville-area Exxon station. The February 2006 spill is among several MTBE cases, including one at an elementary school in Forest Hill and another at a Randallstown development, monitored by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

When low levels of MTBE were detected at her Fallston home in 2006, Beth F. Scheir, who lives north of the station, said her family switched to bottled water for several months. A carbon filtration system was installed in her home in 2004 to purify the well water.

Although MTBE levels in the Fallston area have receded, frustration has not. Residents are angry at Exxon and government agencies over the handling of the contamination and for keeping it secret for more than a decade.

That anger has festered into lawsuits. Almost four years later, none of the lawsuits filed against Exxon and the former Upper Crossroads station owner has gone to trial.

MTBE, which was introduced to burn gasoline cleaner, is no longer used. Refineries voluntarily stopped using it in 2006 after several states banned the additive and multiple lawsuits were filed, said Herbert Meade, administrator of the oil control program for the state's environment agency.

The chemical has been linked to cancer in laboratory animals, but its toxicity to humans at low levels has never been determined.

The MTBE leaked from the Fallston station's underground storage tanks in the form of vapors and traveled into the groundwater, Meade said. There were 34 vapor leaks.

After the Upper Crossroads station closed in 2005, Exxon ripped out the underground tanks, removed contaminated soil and installed a pumping machine that has treated about 4.5 million gallons of water, Meade said.

In an e-mailed statement, Exxon spokeswoman Nair, wrote that the company has been following a corrective plan approved by the state environmental agency.

Residents are hoping that one of their complaints will be classified as a class action lawsuit. They want Exxon to pay for medical monitoring and damages.

"There are health ramifications for people who have been exposed for who knows how long," said Ted Flerlage, an attorney with the firm of Peter G. Angelos, which filed one of the lawsuits against Exxon.

In a related case, Flerlage represented four families who sued a developer for selling them homes in Fallston with contaminated water. A Montgomery County jury awarded the plaintiffs about $200,000 each in compensatory and punitive damages in March.

A retired Harford County judge will hear the case against Exxon, but a trial date has not been set. Some plaintiffs fear delays, citing the Exxon Valdez case, in which the lawsuit involving an Alaskan oil spill has languished in courts for almost two decades. Twenty percent of the original plaintiffs are deceased.

Officials acknowledged in a state environmental agency report that they first learned of the contamination at the Upper Crossroads Exxon station in 1990 when a well there tested at 45 parts per billion of MTBE. The agency recommends treatment for wells that have 20 parts per billion and above.

After finding no trace of MTBE at that location three years later, the case was closed. But by 1998, water at a nearby Italian restaurant, Mama Libera's, tested at more than six times the permitted level - 126 parts per billion.

When state environmental officials forced Exxon to test private wells within a half-mile radius of the station in 2004, neighbors learned of the contamination.

"ExxonMobil knew of contamination. MDE knew of contamination and failed to tell people until we had been exposed," said Gene Ratych, president of the Greater Fallston Association. "I don't know how long before they tested my water that I had contamination coming into my house."

In 2004, the Morgans' home tested at nearly 37 times the permitted level, prompting them to ask their tenants to move.

"They really swept it under the rug," said Carl Morgan. "We should've been notified or had water tested because they knew about the adjacent property."

Fallston resident Bobby Michel had a different view.

"We seem to be taken care of and no one seems to be affected," Michel said. "The amount of stuff in there was so minute compared to what everyone got excited about. It's so minute compared to all the stuff and preservatives we are eating."

The leak caused a flurry of community meetings, lawsuits and legislation. In 2005, a state law was approved requiring governmental agencies to notify property owners within one-half mile of a contamination.

The environmental agency learned a "serious" lesson, Meade said. "We found that it's critical in today's world that citizens have a right to know what's going on out there."

Exxon initially provided bottled water to affected residents and installed carbon filtration systems for almost 200 wells. The bottled water stopped in 2006 and then last year, residents were told that they would be responsible for maintaining their own filtration systems.

"It was like Merry Christmas from Exxon, we're not helping you anymore," said Beth F. Scheir, who received a letter in December.

In the e-mail, Nair wrote that Exxon is maintaining 45 filtration systems as requested by state officials and that the company is "in full compliance."

Maintenance of the filtration system costs about $1,000 a year, residents said.

"Some of these families can't afford it," Ratych said. "Families are struggling to make sure they have clean water for an incident that was out of their hands."

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