Harford County Executive James M. Harkins says he might propose a moratorium on new gas stations in all or part of the county until investigators determine the source of a gasoline additive leak near Fallston that has contaminated wells at 84 properties.
State environmental officials have said an Exxon station at Routes 152 and 165 is at least partly responsible for a leak of methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE. As a result of the contamination, much of the community in the Upper Crossroads section has turned to bottled water for drinking and cooking.
Harkins' move comes as tests have detected a tiny trace of MTBE in the county's public water system for the first time.
Elected officials are gearing up to address the issue. A state legislator is calling for expanded MTBE testing near the Exxon station and for requiring its removal from gasoline. County Council members are drafting bills aimed at safeguarding the county's water supply.
"Protecting the water supply will be the big issue in the council the second half of this year," said Councilman Robert G. Cassilly, a Bel Air Republican.
Harkins said Friday that the administration's legal department is working with Councilwoman Veronica "Roni" L. Chenowith on legislation that would ban new gas stations from neighborhoods that draw their water from individual wells. Chenowith represents the Upper Crossroads area.
"Something happened at Upper Crossroads," Harkins said. "The system is not working. Something fell apart in the process. The checks and balances at Upper Crossroads did not work."
Harkins said it is too early to offer details of the proposed legislation, but he added that it could take the direction of "no more gas stations anywhere until we get answers" to what went wrong at Upper Crossroads.
Harkins' proposal drew mixed reaction from industry representatives.
Paul Fiore of the Washington, Maryland, Delaware Service Station and Automotive Repair Association said he would reserve judgment until he had time to discuss it with directors of the group. The association represents about 1,400 service stations, the majority of them in Maryland.
Peter Horrigan, president of the Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Distributors' Association, called a moratorium a "local reaction to a global problem."
He said Harford County and Maryland would be better served if local elected officials backed a national energy policy that would eliminate MTBE from gasoline.
Although Maryland Department of the Environment officials say the Exxon station is at least partly responsible for the MTBE situation, no leaks have been detected at the station.
Del. Joanne S. Parrott, a Republican who represents Upper Crossroads, said a new test, aimed at detecting a possible leak of MTBE vapor from the station's fuel system, would be done at the station starting July 19.
She said the test will take five to 10 days. "This test will tell if it's leaking from the nozzle, from the hose, a valve, a fitting or the storage tank," she said.
Parrott said she is also pushing MDE and Exxon Mobil Corp. to test all wells within a mile of the Exxon station. "People are concerned," she said. "They want to know if their water is safe."
She said Exxon Mobil agreed Friday to test the wells of homes on Orchard Lakes Drive, Stanley Drive and Artemus Court, all of which are beyond the half-mile radius where most tests have occurred.
Parrott said she also plans to introduce a bill to require that MTBE be removed from gasoline sold in the county and probably the rest of the state.
County Council members Cassilly and Cecelia M. Stepp said they feel they have enough information to move ahead on new measures to protect the county's water supply, including changes in zoning laws and adoption of a much-discussed wellhead protection plan.
"Our water supply is critical," Stepp said. "We have got to protect it. Now is the time. Everyone is very aware now of what happens when you don't protect your water supply."
MTBE is an additive used to make gasoline burn more cleanly. Since 1990, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has required its use in gas sold in states such as Maryland that have a summertime ozone pollution problem.
Although the EPA says there are no studies of the effects of drinking MTBE-contaminated water, it has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals at high doses in inhalation studies. The federal agency does not recommend drinking water with more than 20 parts per billion of MTBE.
Some Harford County residents who draw water from the county's public water system were alarmed recently when they looked at a county water quality report that arrived with their water bills this month and saw that traces of MTBE were listed.
Wayne Ludwig, chief of operations at the water and sewer division of the Department of Public Works, said that of the 30 tests performed last year, MTBE was detected at only one site - a water treatment plant in Havre de Grace that supplies about 1 million gallons of water a day to the county.
He said the MTBE level was 0.5 parts per billion, which is the lowest level that can be detected in water. This is well below the 20 parts per billion "action" level at which the MDE suggests the use of alternative water or the installation of a filtration system.
The water at the Havre de Grace plant comes from the Susquehanna River, he said.
Harford County is not alone in having traces of MTBE in its public water system. A state task force several years ago detected MTBE - usually at very low levels - in about 100 public water systems throughout the state.
The county's public water system serves 110,000 people. Ludwig said the majority of the county's drinking water comes from Loch Raven Reservoir in Baltimore County.
Dr. Andrew Bernstein, Harford County's health officer, suggested to County Council members last week that they might want to consider zoning law changes and the adoption of a wellhead protection plan. He said they might even want to push for a ban of MTBE at the state and national level.
Cassilly said he was not surprised by traces of MTBE in water taken from the Susquehanna River. "It flows through a lot of towns as it makes its way from New York, through Pennsylvania, to Harford County."
Cassilly said he has discussed other possible steps with council members. He said they are looking at stricter development standards for gas stations that would keep them a safe distance from wells or other sources of water, such as Winters Run, which supplies water to Bel Air.
"In some areas, it would say, 'No you can't build a gas station here, it's too close to the water,'" he said of the potential legislation. "It might say, 'You can build here, but you have to do the following things to eliminate pollution.'"
Cassilly said laws and regulations have not kept pace with the evolution of gas stations from one- or two-pump operations to stations with 10 or 12 pumps, selling thousands of gallons of gas a day.
The councilman said he hopes to have a bill ready for the next council meeting, on Aug. 3.
"I'm anxious to roll on this," he said of the potential legislation. "If we don't have water, we don't have anything. That's the bottom line. It is ludicrous to put our water system in jeopardy.
"Once the water is contaminated," he said, "remediation is very expensive."
Cassilly and Stepp are moving forward on a measure that would lead to a wellhead protection plan, something that has been discussed for 10 years. Such a plan would seek to ensure water quality by controlling development in the vicinity of residential wells and the county's water system.
"Studies have been done on a wellhead protection plan," said Stepp, "but nothing was ever implemented. Maybe we should start there."
Sun staff writer Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.