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Crying Over Spilled Petroleum

Oil Spill Goes Virtually Unnoticed in South Baltimore

Courtesy Linda Stewart
OIL AND TROUBLE: A state geologist confirmed that manholes around Curtis Bay have been left uncovered because the state has been monitoring the cleanup of an oil spill in the area that happened in the fall.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 2/20/2008

A burst pipeline spilled about 80,000 gallons of heating oil into the ground and sewers of Fairfield near Curtis Bay last fall, according to a state geologist.

The previously unreported oil spill came to light after Linda Stewart, proprietor of the Gaslight Tavern, started asking why local manholes were left uncovered. Stewart has been battling high and variable water bills as well as other water-related issues in her neighborhood for more than a year ("Water Weight," Mobtown Beat, June 13, 2007).

"There was a [water] leak coming out of the ground [and] I tried to get the city to fix that," Stewart says. "This was last October."

Stewart says she e-mailed City Council members, the Department of Public Works, and the Maryland Department of the Environment about the open manholes she saw near the Center Point Terminal at 3100 Vera St. On Feb. 12, she says. Forest Arnold, a regional geologist with the Maryland Department of the Environment, left a message on her answering machine explaining that his agency had left some manhole covers tipped up in order to monitor and retrieve absorbent pads to soak up any remaining oil.

"We haven't had any oil for a while," Arnold tells City Paper.

The spill happened "some time in the fall," Arnold says, after the rupture of one of the eight- or 10-inch wide underground pipes connecting the huge oil tanks to the "rack" where oil trucks fill up. The underground pipes have since been replaced with above-ground pipes, he added. Center Point is owned and operated by Apex Oil of Clayton, Missouri.

The spill's size would seem large enough to garner public notice: 80,000 gallons would fill more than a dozen oil trucks, and a 2000 spill of 111,000 gallons into the Patuxent River was big news statewide.

That spill resulted in PEPCO and ST Services paying almost $2 million to the state, under a law that allows the MDE levy a civil penalty of up to $100 per gallon of oil spilled.

The amount of oil spilled in this case seems to be in dispute. A source says the state is trying to negotiate a settlement from Apex.

Arnold says he could not offer details about the Apex case, saying only that there are "legal issues" surrounding the spill. He says that 45,000 gallons of oil have been recovered, and is unsurprised by the lack of media coverage. It's "not that unusual," he says. "We deal with a couple thousand spills in our unit a year--60 percent or so are petroleum."

A man who answered the phone at the terminal said he could not speak to a reporter, and gave two phone numbers for the corporate headquarters of Apex Oil. A secretary for Apex Oil's legal section acknowledged receipt of a City Paper e-mail sent to Apex's legal council but said the company would not comment on the matter.

Stewart says she is concerned about chemical contamination of the ground around her home and business and whether contaminated soils could cause her drinking water to become contaminated. "Both me and my husband have experienced burning eyes after getting out of the shower," she says.

She has also noted what appears to be shifting ground on her street, which she thinks might be breaking both sewer and water pipes. In December, City Paper reported that Baltimore City had not reported sewage spills as required under a federal consent decree.

Apex is currently facing a lawsuit to clean up massive ground contamination in Madison County, Missouri, where "decades of spills and leaks of petroleum from refineries and pipelines there that have resulted in more than a million gallons of gasoline and oil" contaminating groundwater and even creating explosion hazards, according to a Jan. 13 story in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Apex says it cleaned up its part of those spills in the 1980s.

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