At about 4 p.m. on Friday, February 17, 2006—just before everyone at the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) left for the Presidents’ Day long weekend—the agency received a phone call from a representative of ExxonMobil.
The petroleum giant’s representative told the MDE that a gasoline line at the Exxon station at 14258 Jarrettsville Pike (operated by Storto Enterprises Inc.) in Jacksonville had failed to pass a manual precision test. Furthermore, an examination of monitoring wells—drilled around all gas stations to catch anything amiss—indicated a leak had occurred. A huge leak.
“If they said there were a couple of inches on top of the groundwater, we wouldn’t go into panic mode,” says Horacio Tablada, director of waste management administration for MDE. “When they said there was 15 feet of product [in one of the wells] we knew it was a massive release—a catastrophic release.”
While MDE inspectors bore down on the site to secure data and begin their investigation, Herb Meade—head of MDE’s oil-control program—made a phone call to Glen Thomas, the president of the Greater Jacksonville Association. The community organization serves the town of Jacksonville, a mostly suburban and rural area of about 11,000 people located just north of Baltimore City; the median household income is about $103,000. Meade knew that the leak meant trouble for Jacksonville, because the area relies solely on groundwater to maintain drinking water wells and septic systems: The nearest access to public water is over eight miles away.
“It was a shock because he [Meade], at that point, already had a sense of the magnitude of the leak,” recalls Thomas about the phone call. “Even at that point, when they were just starting their investigation, they were talking about possibly 25,000 gallons of gasoline.” While no one was certain of the extent of the leak at that time, Thomas began the grim task of calling his neighbors, spreading the word through the community that gasoline could potentially be spreading through the drinking water.
One neighbor he called was Linda Berlin, who has lived with her husband on Robcaste Road, about a quarter-mile from the Exxon station, since 1997. “He was kind of like Paul Revere warning of an invasion,” says Berlin of the call she received from Thomas. “I was shocked and amazed. . . . We really didn’t know anything, so we were concerned, but we waited.”
It quickly became apparent on that holiday weekend that investigators were at the site of one of the largest underground gasoline leaks in Maryland’s history. It is believed that, all told, more than 25,000 gallons of regular unleaded gasoline was released from a leak in an underground line, which may have started as early as January 12, 2006. That meant that the station was hemorrhaging about 675 gallons of gasoline a day—for 37 days—into the water supply.
The leak led to hundreds of concerned residents packing into community meetings who wanted to know if their water was poisoned, or cancerous; how long it would take to clean the ground and water; and whether their homes’ values were affected.
And what Jacksonville’s residents—and the state of Maryland—want to know most of all is why the leak wasn’t noticed for more than a month. Both the state and a group of homeowners have filed suits against ExxonMobil and the station’s owners. The state’s suit is for $12 million; about 100 households, covering over 500 claimants, have filed a suit for $1 billion; they are represented by the firm of Snyder Slutkin & Snyder.
“Clearly, there’s a diminution in the value of their homes and a significant nuisance value to their damages,” says attorney Stephen Snyder. “I think Exxon needs to be really whacked in this case for reprehensible conduct, in that they failed to take steps to notify the community and allowed this thing to continue for 37 days, causing a massive catastrophe.” (In late July, a federal judge ruled that the case could be sent to federal court, which was seen as a win for ExxonMobil.)
Before the clean-up—and the lawsuits—could begin, officials had to secure the station and contain the leak. Tablada says that by Saturday, February 18, Exxon had emptied all the station’s tanks as ordered by MDE, and Exxon’s contractors were putting in additional monitoring wells. “At that time, we didn’t know that the leak had been going on since January, so we thought everything could be contained in the area near the tanks and that we could recover before it got any further,” Tablada says.
In an email response to questions, ExxonMobil spokesperson Betsy Eaton explains that “within hours we mobilized equipment and people from as close by as Baltimore, to as far away as California. An experienced ExxonMobil team was established on site working with several environmental consultants and more than 40 sub-contracting companies. At one point, there were more than 100 people dedicated to this project working seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”
As the crews worked, it quickly became apparent that the spill was larger than anyone anticipated, and was being complicated by the unique geology of the area. The rock that lies beneath the surface of Jacksonville is not solid bedrock; it is fractured. Historically, groundwater flowed through this fissured geology to the southwest, so experts expected the gasoline to travel in that direction, toward Robcaste Road.
What they didn’t expect was that the same fractured rock was transporting the gasoline on a diagonal to the northeast as well. Gasoline traveling in that direction contaminated the well serving Bradford Bank, which now uses water from a tank provided by ExxonMobil.
“We basically have two fronts we are fighting,” says Tablada. “Our staff was almost living there. Our geologists and inspectors were there 24/7.”
The problem with gasoline, particularly in a groundwater area, is that it contains benzene, a known carcinogen. Gas also contains methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), an additive that is a suspected carcinogen. Benzene is easier to remediate from a spill area than MTBE, which dissolves quickly in water and does not adhere to soil.
Since the spill, Exxon has drilled an additional 212 monitoring wells throughout the Jacksonville area, and the company has sampled the private supply wells at 273 homes and businesses. Now, the Exxon station is cloaked in chain link fence and jersey walls, and remediation equipment has spilled over onto adjacent lots and once-quiet neighborhoods.
The clean-up effort has moved from one of recovery—trying to remove as much product as possible and contain the leak—to a slower and more costly remediation. This involves a process in which both gasoline and gasoline vapors are removed from the groundwater and soil. At the beginning, vacuum trucks literally sucked gasoline from the water. Now, the monitoring wells (drilled at depths of 150 to 300 feet) double as pumping wells, where groundwater is pumped through carbon filters until it is clean. In addition to filtering the water, the effort also extracts noxious vapors through a process called soil vapor extraction.
Conservative estimates indicate that the clean-up could take three to five years; ExxonMobil’s Eaton states that any timeframe or cost projection for the clean-up would be speculation at this time.
In the civil suit filed by Snyder Slutkin & Snyder, a previous leak of 1,400 gallons of gasoline in the Jacksonville/Phoenix area—at a station also operated by Storto Enterprises—took seven years (from 1987 to 1994) to clean up, with government monitoring continuing through 1996. The suit asserts that it will more likely be 10 years—or longer—until this site is clean.
As the clean-up continues, the focus is shifting away from the leak itself to why it went undetected for so long. According to the MDE, the answer is negligence. In the $12 million civil complaint filed by the State against Storto Enterprises and ExxonMobil, it is alleged that the leak was created by a worker who inadvertently drilled a 3/16-inch hole in a fiberglass pipe. (Ironically, the worker was conducting a repair to bring the station into compliance with another MDE regulation.) “Damage of this magnitude requires equal action by us, enforcement-wise,” says Tablada. “We’re taking strong action against Exxon and holding their feet to the fire, and we’ll continue to stay on their case in terms of clean-up and their responsibility to citizens.”
The lawsuit indicates that gas stations must inventory their product daily and monthly, and that the owner or operator must reconcile the results against pump meter readings and receipts. There are also supposed to be release detection devices, such as an alarm, on tanks and lines. Yet despite hundreds of gallons of gas that went unaccounted for every day—worth some $2,000—the station continued to operate normally. They did, however, begin receiving extra shipments to make up for the shortfall in inventory.
During the 37-day period of the leak, Exxon contractors performed services on underground storage tank systems approximately seven times, apparently without noting anything awry. In the civil suit, it is claimed that a station employee contacted ExxonMobil about the inventory discrepancies, yet the station remained open. ExxonMobil states that this matter is under an internal investigation.
Despite the lawsuit, MDE’s Tablada says that ExxonMobil has been very responsive to MDE’s calls for action in the wake of the spill. The company provides MDE with updates on the clean-up twice a week.
“The gasoline leak should not have happened,” says ExxonMobil’s Eaton. “ExxonMobil apologizes to the community and is taking full responsibility for remediation under the MDE’s oversight and direction.”
Luckily, the fractured rock geology has thus far kept the gasoline leak contained to the northeast-to-southwest-flowing fissure. So while the leak is the largest by volume in the state, the effects are not as catastrophic as they could have been. Three homes have tested positive for MTBE levels above the State Action Level of 20 parts per billion. Another five homes have been fitted with carbon filters as a precaution. Many other wells have tested positive for MTBE, but at rates lower than the state level.
But that doesn’t help Linda Berlin or her neighbors sleep well at night. Berlin’s home on Robcaste Road is in the highest contamination zone. Her well tested negative in February, March, and April, but her immediate neighbors have had positive tests, though the results are thus far below the state action level.
Still, as far as citizens are concerned, any MTBE in the water is too much. Snyder notes that many residents in the area have basically been blacklisted by friends who don’t want their children to visit families in the spill area, and that homeowners are essentially stuck in a community where their homes may never be as valuable as they once were.
While the testing was taking place, ExxonMobil provided homeowners with bottled water. In late July, the company informed 120 residents that it would no longer be supplying bottled water. According to Berlin, the community was pushing to get another testing date in August, but after that the future is unknown. Berlin says ending the testing is shortsighted on the part of MDE, and she dedicates much of her spare time to writing letters to her state representatives including Senator Andrew Harris and delegates Richard Impallaria, Patrick McDonough, J.B. Jennings, and Wade Kach asking for action.
“The amount of gasoline was so immense, and these components travel over time, so there’s really no way to tell where all the components are going to go,” says Berlin. “I just don’t think this thing is going to end soon, especially since Exxon is going to be here for 10 to 14 years. We would like our water tested for that entire length of time to warn us of any impending pollution threats.”
Glen Thomas says that concern in the community runs deep. At a regularly scheduled community association meeting shortly after the spill was identified, more than 300 people came to a meeting that usually attracts 60.
While the immediate concern was the safety of the drinking water, worries have now shifted to long-range issues, such as property values. Thomas recalls that one resident came to him for help getting the sale of a house closed. Another needed help completing her home refinancing. In both cases, Thomas was able to secure letters from MDE that allowed the transactions to be completed.
Others worry about the sanctity of the water table. With so much contaminated water being pumped out of the aquifer, some residents are concerned that their wells could run dry.
Tablada is confident that, with time and effort, the groundwater in Jacksonville will return to its original state. Residents aren’t so sure, which is why they are pursuing their own legal action against ExxonMobil and the station’s operator, via their civil suit. The suit claims that not only were ExxonMobil and Storto Enterprises negligent in allowing the leak to occur and go on undetected, but that Exxon’s test results on wells, groundwater, and soil are inaccurate, and that containment and elimination information provided by Exxon has been overstated.
There’s also concern that the necessary remediation activities have turned this sleepy town, known locally as “Four Corners,” into a light industrial zone.
“My hope—and I think I speak for the whole community—is that the recovery and remediation continue at as fast a pace as possible,” says Thomas.
One thing that rankles Thomas is the purchase by ExxonMobil of several highly visible commercial properties in the Four Corners area. According to company spokesperson Betsy Eaton, ExxonMobil purchased three pieces of property to be used for long-term remediation activities. Thomas would like to know what the company plans to do with the properties when the remediation activities in Jacksonville are complete. To sell the properties for commercial development at a profit years from now would be another slap to a community that already feels bruised.
“I hope to talk to ExxonMobil in the near future about long-term use of those properties, and hopefully to get [them] to recognize that they could give back to this community where they’ve had such a massive impact by how those properties are used in the future,” says Thomas. He notes, for example, that the area could use a library branch. A branch that, perhaps, ExxonMobil could endow. “I would like for them to think about ways they can give back to this community,” Thomas adds, “because they’ve taken an awful lot from us.”