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Left in the Dark As Danger Lurks


In gas leaks, state often decides not to tell

The bulldozers working at the corner service station caught Jason Hill's eye on a hot August morning in 1995. So did the truck that said "New York State Department of Environmental Conservation" in green lettering on the doors.

For years, the Hills had wondered why their washing machine smelled faintly of gasoline, and why they would get headaches and feel dizzy whenever they took a shower. And they didn't understand why their allergist couldn't find the cause for 11-year-old Jeanine Hill's chronic sinus infection.

Marilyn and James Hill with their children, Janelle, 4, and Jeanine, 11, and James' brother Jason, far right, outside their Ridge home. They were never told of a nearby gas station leak.

"When I looked over at the station and saw the trucks, I put it all together," said Jason Hill, who is single and lives with his brother's family in Ridge in a comfortable house on Ruth Lane, 850 feet from a Mobil station on Route 25, just west of the William Floyd Parkway.

The Hills' experience mirrors that of many Long Island families who are angry they were never told about leaks near their homes, or learned about them only by accident. With underground spill plumes moving faster and covering more ground because of the addition of the synthetic chemical MTBE to gasoline, more and more families are feeling like ignorant bystanders.

"The DEC forgets that they're dealing with human beings who have a major investment in their property and who drink the water and live there," said Stony Brook lawyer Neal Capria, who has handled more than 15 spill cases and is representing the Hills in a lawsuit against Mobil which blames the station for polluting their water well.

State officials say they have broad discretion in deciding who to notify about a spill, and try to strike a balance between saying too much and not saying enough. "In a lot of cases, if you notify people who aren't really interested you create undue concern, and some people don't want to know because they don't want to have to disclose it if they're selling their house," said Joseph Haas of the DEC.

The DEC didn't tell the Hills or anyone else in the neighborhood that there had been several gasoline leaks at the Mobil station, and no one had tested their well even though it was in the path of groundwater flowing south from the station.

After badgering Suffolk County Department of Health Services officials for months, Jason Hill persuaded them to waive a $65 fee and test the family's well. The results, which came back in mid-January, 1996, showed the Hills were drinking, showering and washing clothes and dishes in water that contained 15 parts per billion of MTBE.

There's no way to know whether the Hills' problems were caused by leaks at the Mobil station, and county and state officials point out the test results for MTBE were less than New York's maximum permissible level of 50 parts per billion. But the reading was high enough that the state within eight weeks had hooked up their house to the Suffolk County Water Authority for free. The rest of the neighborhood had hooked up two years earlier when a water main was laid along the street, but the Hills had balked at the $3,000 pricetag, a decision they now regret.

Today, the Hills are waiting to see what happens with their lawsuit, which is pending, and Jason Hill's brother James, a letter carrier who owns the house with his wife, Marilyn, worries that they will never be able to sell it. "This stuff is still underground, the vapors could still be coming up through the soil," he said.

A spokesman for Mobil, Don Turk, said the company's investigations suggest that any gasoline that reached the Hill's home came from some other source, or from leaks at the station that occurred before Mobil began leasing it in 1990.

State records show MTBE was found to be leaking from a gas dispenser in 1995, and there was another small leak last year. But it's uncertain whether either tainted the Hills' well because 10 years earlier the station's tanks were replaced after a major leak contaminated at least one well on Ruth Lane.

The station has been operating so long, Turk said, that there are between five and 13 abandoned tanks buried under it or nearby. "There are many possible sources out there," he said.