Jacksonville gas spill fears called unfounded

The Baltimore Sun

Jacksonville residents are justifiably distressed about a 26,000-gallon gasoline leak that seeped into the groundwater supplying area wells, but their fears about lingering contamination and possible health risks are unsubstantiated, a defense attorney representing Exxon Mobil Corp. said yesterday during his closing arguments in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

The 300 or so plaintiffs suing the oil company contend that their physical and emotional health were damaged, along with property values, because of the spill three years ago at an Exxon service station in Jacksonville.

While the plaintiffs may suffer such fears and distress, particularly concerning cancer, they must demonstrate those concerns are "objectively reasonable," based on scientific or medical evidence, Exxon Mobil attorney James F. Sanders told jurors yesterday.

"Nobody is in danger. Nobody's close to danger," Sanders said, referring to whether the drinking water is safe. "The answer to that question is clearly, 'yes, it is.' "

Sanders also challenged the notion that Exxon officials knew that the electronic leak detectors at the service station were not reliable. Exxon would have to be "mean a mile wide" to knowingly use faulty detectors, putting employees, customers and neighbors at risk, he said, asking jurors if such behavior made any sense.

Yet the company is liable to those who were harmed by the leak, Sanders said. "We take the responsibility, not only for the cleanup but to pay damages to people who were actually harmed."

The jury's sympathy for the plaintiffs should be balanced with what is reasonable, drawing a line between "real nuisance" and "anger, frustration, aggravation and things like that," he said.

Sanders' presentation followed closing arguments from the plaintiffs' attorney, Stephen L. Snyder, who told jurors they should award at least $2.5 million per family to account for the emotional damages because of the fuel spill.

Sanders is to conclude his closing arguments today.

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