Even before they have been published, proposed new state regulations aimed at preventing groundwater contamination by a noxious gasoline additive are coming under fire from both sides.
Gasoline dealers and station owners object to being required to replace all the underground fuel pipes at existing gas stations, to provide extra protection against possible future leaks of methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE. They contend that such overhauls are costly and should only be undertaken to repair a known problem.
"Whatever the fix is ought to relate to what the problem is," said Drew Cobbs, director of the Maryland Petroleum Council. "If you have a leak and you address it, why do you have to go and replace the whole system?"
Environmental and health advocates, meanwhile, contend that the station upgrades contemplated by the Maryland Department of the Environment do not go far enough to curb the threat to drinking-water wells from MTBE, which has fouled thousands of wells across the state. They are calling for tighter monitoring of stations, stricter enforcement of regulations and even a phaseout of the gasoline additive altogether.
"These regulations fall far short of what's needed," said Theresa Pierno, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who favors a ban on MTBE in Maryland. Dr. Andrew Bernstein, health officer in Harford County, which is struggling with extensive MTBE well contamination, also has called the state's plans inadequate.
Amid the furor in Harford this summer over MTBE leaks that have contaminated 250 residential and commercial wells in the Fallston area, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced last month that his administration plans regulations to require leak-prevention and early-detection measures at new and existing gas stations.
The rules, which officials hope to have in place by the end of the year, are being crafted with the aim of curbing not just liquid fuel leaks, but seepage of MTBE vapors from underground tanks and pipes.
Vapor leaks from an Exxon station at Routes 152 and 165 are suspected to be a major source of the MTBE that has been found in 177 nearby wells - with levels in 11 of them exceeding the 20-parts-per-billion threshold at which the state urges filtering the water or switching to bottled drinks.
Another 80 wells farther away also have MTBE in them, according to reports collected by the Harford County Health Department.
Added to gasoline since the early 1990s to combat air pollution, MTBE dissolves easily in water. It has caused cancer in laboratory animals at high doses, though its health effects on humans are unknown at the low levels typically found in well water. Even at such low levels, however, its pungent, turpentinelike odor can spoil the taste of water.
Fallston-area community leaders had not seen the draft rules, which were released to The Sun on Friday. Del. Joanne S. Parrott, a Harford County Republican who represents the Fallston area, called them "a good first step" if they follow the provisions initially outlined when the governor announced them last month.
Industry got first look
State officials had earlier provided industry groups with a draft summary of the regulations, and they met privately with industry representatives to hear their concerns.
"How about sharing with the citizens you're supposed to be protecting?" said John Niland, a frequent critic of the agency who runs a business installing and replacing home heating oil tanks.
At least one provision already apparently has changed since the governor's announcement last month - the deadline for overhauling existing stations has slipped four years, to 2013 from 2009.
Horacio Tablada, acting waste management director of the Environment Department, said agency officials consulted with industry representatives to get their feedback on technical issues as they continue to draft the regulations. Officials hope to publish the proposed regulations next month, giving the public a chance to review and comment on them before making them final.
"This doesn't affect the citizens of Fallston," Tablada said of the rules, which are aimed at preventing or detecting future leaks, rather than treating the existing contamination now being investigated at the Harford County crossroads. "Any citizen will have a right to comment when we have the regulations on the street."
Industry representatives say they're committed to keeping MTBE out of groundwater, but they contend that a rule requiring retrofitting stations with double-walled piping would be costly and disruptive. Replacing pipes and other upgrades being considered could cost $50,000 to $100,000 per station, and force them to close temporarily while the work is being done.
Studies from California and other states have indicated that gas stations with double-walled fuel tanks and piping are just as likely to have MTBE contamination around them as those with older, single-walled storage systems. Experts suggest that's because MTBE vapors can seep out of pipe fittings and other joints in equipment not prone to liquid leaks.
Tablada said the state is considering requiring leak sensors and alarms at stations, as well as monitoring wells around a station to pick up any contaminants in the groundwater before it oozes off site.
But one industry group leader argued that such wells might raise the risks of groundwater contamination.
"By putting observation wells in the ground, are you just putting in another opening into the groundwater where a spill can go?" asked F. Peter Horrigan, president of the Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Distributors Association, which represents about 120 independent owners of gas stations.
With MTBE apparently getting into groundwater from gas stations that have never reported a leak, Harford's health officer contends that the state should require - and pay for - routine checks of wells around gas stations. Bernstein argues that the leak sensors and alarms the state rules may require might not be enough.
"I do not think early-detection systems are sufficient to guarantee that a leak will be detected," he said. He also contends that the state agency lacks the staff and enforcement authority to properly oversee all the underground fuel tanks in the state.
"There's no teeth at MDE," he said at a public meeting in Fallston on Saturday.
Tablada said environmental officials are considering other possible measures to prevent contamination from vapor leaks - including use of equipment to extract vapors from soil at a station, or even installation of pioneering devices to prevent the buildup of vapor pressure in tanks and pipes.
"Our main objective right from the beginning was to make these regulations very effective, very focused, and to solve the issue of petroleum being released, whether it's MTBE or ethanol [another gasoline additive]," the state official said.