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Plaintiffs fill courtroom for Exxon leak trial

The Baltimore Sun

A throng of plaintiffs packed a Towson courtroom yesterday, overflowing into a hallway, to hear the lawyer they had hired make the case that their neighborhood was ruined and their health endangered by the leak from a gas station of thousands of gallons of gasoline.

"This is a leak that should not have happened," Stephen L. Snyder, whose firm is representing 300 residents of Jacksonville, said in Baltimore County Circuit Court during opening statements in a trial in which the plaintiffs are collectively seeking $1 billion from Exxon Mobil Corp., which owned the gas station. "This is a group of citizens who had a right to expect Exxon to provide a safe environment."

The underground leak, which was discovered in February 2006, dumped more than 26,000 gallons of regular unleaded gasoline into the groundwater that supplied the area's wells in northern Baltimore County.

"Exxon made a corporate decision to disregard the health and welfare of the citizens," Snyder said before the standing-room-only crowd.

"Their house, for them, is no longer a place where they feel safe," said Snyder, who noted that water for "drinking, bathing and brushing teeth are all affected."

A couple who bought a home in the Jacksonville area a decade ago - and who did not provide their names because their lawyer advised them not to comment on the case - said during a break that they now rely on bottled water for almost everything except showers, a choice they made because the concentrations of gasoline compounds in samples of their well water are relatively low. Their home is the couple's primary investment, the woman said, and as such, "We don't have the option of walking away."

Last month, ExxonMobil agreed to pay $4 million to the Maryland Department of the Environment as a penalty for the spill. Earlier, Exxon officials had apologized and promised to take full responsibility for removing the gas from the ground, and said the leak was reported to state officials as soon as it was discovered. When the lawsuit was filed, Betsy Eaton, a spokeswoman for ExxonMobil, said it would not "distract us from our primary focus, which is to use all available resources to clean up and remediate the gasoline that leaked into the ground" - an effort that could take another 10 or 15 years.

About 64,000 gallons of water are being extracted from the water table every day, Snyder told the jurors, at a cost so far to ExxonMobil of about $50 million. But the company - which brings in about $100 million a day, Snyder said - stopped short of buying up the affected properties, many of which, he said, are now worthless.

"Exxon should have done the right thing, but unfortunately they took that option away," said Snyder, whose presentation took up the entire day's court session. The lead counsel for the defense, James F. Sanders, who lives in Nashville, Tenn., is to begin his opening statement today.

Yesterday's session had moments of levity, particularly when Snyder, who favors a theatrical style, sought to make the jurors comfortable with the notion of spending between three and five months listening to a trial consumed with the intricacies of mechanisms for detecting leaks and the effects of gasoline compounds on human health.

Snyder, whose offices are in Pikesville, asked an assistant to display on a large screen an image of a faux Halloween card for the jurors. The card suggested that, when asked for their choice of Halloween costume this year, they should tell people that "you're dressed as a juror." A Christmas card described jury duty as "a gift actually worse than fruitcake."

Turning serious, Snyder asserted that Exxon Mobil had known for at least seven years before the incident that the electronic leak detectors it used were prone to failure but that the company nevertheless failed to replace them in a timely manner.

"Exxon's own documents showed that their failure could cause an emergency," Snyder said. The kind of detector Exxon used at the Jacksonville station, he went on, "was a lemon, and they knew it."

"Taking on Exxon is no easy task," Snyder said, describing the "scorched-earth litigation" he intended to pursue to try to win the case. "We're going to have to fight for every point in this trial. I was not hired to be a pussycat. I was hired to be a bulldog."

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