Gas by the glass: North Garden's contaminated water

Ann Messina still remembers the day the Department of Environmental Quality told her to stop eating the eggs her chickens were laying and to stop bathing and washing clothes in the water from her well.

She and her husband thought they'd done the necessary due diligence before buying a home in North Garden in 1990. They stayed clear of the Ivy Landfill. They had the house tested for radon. And the health department found their high-yielding well potable.

What the Messinas didn't know when they closed on the house was that state officials were investigating a nearby petroleum spill that had been silently seeping into the earth and had fouled a neighbor's well. And while one state agency investigated the cause of the contamination, another okayed a permit to drill a well for the Messinas' new house.

Flash forward 15 years. Earlier this year, houses began rising next door to Messina. She wonders if new neighbors will face the same water hazards– and why the Department of Health approved well permits on a site so close to the largest underground petroleum spill in Albemarle County.

Dan McLaughlin owns those seven lots, and he feels like a victim, too. He's waited 14 years before building on his land, thinking government agencies would take care of the cleanup during that time.

He applied for a well permit, drilled two wells that came up clean– only to find that Albemarle had enacted an emergency ordinance specifically geared to stop him from building. "I feel like I've been singled out," he says.

"My concern is that no other family be exposed" to toxic substances, says Messina, who for 12 years has had to filter every ounce of water she uses. And she's alarmed that government agencies still don't seem to be talking to each other about the hazards in the ground.

The contamination near Red Hill School may be the county's largest, but it's far from the only underground danger zone. Buried oil storage tanks– time bombs waiting to leak their unsavory and unsafe contents– dot the landscape, as the City of Charlottesville discovered this spring during digging for its East Mall expansion. The extent of the potential soil and water contamination is anybody's guess.


Trading Post

 The Trading Post on the corner of U.S. 29 south and Taylor's Gap Road is like many country convenience stores that save rural residents a run into town when they crave smokes, need a gallon of milk, or want a couple of gallons of gas.

The store was built in the early '60s, before the Environmental Protection Agency existed and before the dangers of underground tanks were publicized.

"In the '50s and '60s, they used metal for both the tanks and the lines," says John Ekman, whose father bought the Trading Post in the 1980s. "No one thought about them deteriorating."

Right before Christmas in 1988, an anonymous caller reported a gasoline taste in the water at a home near the convenience store. That was the same year the EPA called for all those old rust-prone steel tanks to be replaced within 10 years with coated steel tanks, fiberglass, or specially treated rust-resistant steel.

"We have no clue how much was released or for how long prior to 1988," says Mac Sterrett, petroleum storage tank program manager for the Department of Environmental Quality's regional office in Harrisonburg.

But remediation didn't begin for another decade.

"There was a dispute about who was responsible," says Sterrett. "Finally, it was conclusively shown that Charlottesville Oil was responsible around '96 or '97."

"The reason it took 10 years was DEQ didn't take state lead," says Messina, explaining that rather than begin the remediation itself, the agency waited for Charlottesville Oil and the Trading Post to do a site investigation.

The Trading Post is independently owned. However, Charlottesville Oil owned the tanks that held the gas there, and "They contended for the longest time they weren't responsible," says Todd Pitsenberger, DEQ senior hydrogeologist and case manager for the spill.

In 1990, Charlottesville Oil removed a 1,000 gallon-gasoline tank from the Trading Post and reported contaminated soil and "free product"– petroleum– in the hole.

"The biggest crime is the gas tanks were removed, and there wasn't anybody from the DEQ or a fire marshal watching when they knew there was a problem in the area," says Messina. "They closed the holes and sealed them off, making remediation more difficult."

In 1997, Charlottesville Oil signed a consent order agreeing to a cleanup. Owner Phil Dulaney did not return phone calls from the Hook for this story.

Under the Virginia Petroleum Storage Tank Fund, to which Virginians contribute 3/5-cent per gallon every time they fill up, the party responsible for a release pays for remediation. Charlottesville Oil had to pay $50,000, but is eligible for up to $1 million per release in reimbursement from that state fund.

According to the DEQ, the Trading Post spill is the only one in this region that has exceeded $1 million. Charlottesville Oil is no longer paying for the ongoing remediation– the state is– but the company still pays for charcoal filtration systems for some of the contaminated wells.

But Charlottesville Oil is not the only party held responsible for spills at the Trading Post.

When petroleum showed up in a monitoring well that previously had not shown any contamination, the DEQ suspected a new release. Testing showed the gas was consistent with the Amoco the Trading Post sold after it put in its own tanks, not the Gulf or Chevron gasoline formerly provided by Charlottesville Oil.

In 2002, Ekman père admitted a gasoline line had broken during construction in 1998. He said it had been fixed, but acknowledged that the break had not been reported, according to the DEQ's case summary. The company that runs the Trading Post, J&F Ekman Inc., was fined $10,000 for not reporting the spill, and held responsible for $5,000 in remediation costs.

A third known spill occurred at the Trading Post in 2002 when a faulty switch on the groundwater remediation system failed, and 275 gallons of gasoline went back into the ground.

Since remediation began in August 1998, over 4,200 gallons of petroleum have been recovered and approximately 3.2 million gallons of contaminated water treated. And 12 wells have been contaminated at one time or another.

The plume is huge, extending 1,700 feet in length and as much as 300 feet wide. Petroleum has soaked the soil down into bedrock.

"That site won't be cleaned up in our lifetime," Pitsenberger says.


Funny taste

 "When I bought the house, the DEQ knew, and the health department knew we were within a short distance from a contaminated site," says Ann Messina, "but I had no way of knowing.

That's how her dream house on Red Hill School Road turned into a nightmare.

"Our well was clean until we had been using it a few months," she recalls. They noticed a mild odor in the water as it came out of the faucet.

The family began drinking bottled water, and Messina called the Department of Health, which recommended having the water tested. A water treatment company came to the house, evaluated the water, found "detectable levels of naturally occurring hydrocarbons," but did not recommend further testing.

"The description sounded 'natural,' so we resumed our normal use of the water but continued drinking bottled water," says Messina.

Benzene, a carcinogen, was the hydrocarbon found in the Messina well. "I guess I did not feel alerted to the possible dangers," she says. "Unless you live on top of an oil well, benzene is not really 'naturally' occurring in Virginia."

She adds, "The point is, if you're not aware there's something out there to be worried about, you don't know what questions to ask to have it taken care of."

Two years later, in 1993, Messina was "shocked and traumatized" to learn from an adjacent property owner of the area's groundwater petroleum contamination and that the DEQ's forebear, the State Water Control Board, had been investigating since 1988.

"Why does the health department not see this as a health risk and within their jurisdiction to prevent?" she asks.

"Our requirements are just to address coliform," says Gary Rice, environmental services supervisor with the Thomas Jefferson Health District, now in Louisa. "I would assume legislation would have to take effect to test for anything besides coliform."

Rice adds that contaminated sites are primarily handled by the DEQ, which directs and monitors the cleanup.

"We as health department officials are very concerned about anything that concerns the health of anyone in Albemarle County," he stresses.

Messina started working on legislation. In 1998, the late state senator Emily Couric carried a bill to assure communication between the DEQ and the Virginia Department of Health. Messina testified before the Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, and the bill passed both houses.

Problem solved, Messina thought– until Dan McLaughlin drilled two new wells for the houses he's building next door.

"The DEQ notifies the Department of Health of all new underground tank releases," says Pitsenberger at DEQ. "The information is made available to them. It's their responsibility to look at it before issuing new permits."

Couric's legislation did not stop the health department from issuing McLaughlin two well permits.

"The health department is supposed to use the database to communicate with DEQ– but that didn't happen," says Messina.

When the well permits were issued to McLaughlin, the health department included a copy of a February 18 DEQ letter that notes the nearby petroleum contamination in the Red Hill area, says Kelly Lobanov, Virginia Department of Health spokeswoman in Richmond.

So Albemarle County began to enact its own laws. Earlier this year, the Board of Supervisors passed a groundwater ordinance that requires that wells be drilled before building permits are issued.

Another in February specifically targeted McLaughlin. The supervisors passed an emergency ordinance that requires that any well within 2,000 feet of a contaminated plume must be tested before a building permit is issued– "directly as a result of the Red Hill case," confirms Tamara Ambler, natural resources manager for Albemarle County.

"We were under the assumption the Department of Health would look at open [contaminated] sites and be the filter," she says. "They didn't. The county felt it needed to step up to the plate and monitor."

McLaughlin's new wells were tested for benzene and toluene, and the results showed no contamination. "We didn't have other means of preventing those building permits from going forward," says Ambler.

The February 18 letter the DEQ's Mac Sterrett wrote– the same one that the Department of Health attached to McLaughlin's permit– states that once the wells are in use, they may still become contaminated, says Ambler. "Ann [Messina] probably used hers for three months before anything showed up," she notes.

"Nobody knows that will happen," counters McLaughlin. "The store right there has no problem."

Messina worries that using water from the new wells will draw the contaminated plume toward Red Hill School, which has a monitoring well to test groundwater quality.

"My concern is that new people will be living with a well near a plume DEQ feels is susceptible to contamination," she says.

She also believes McLaughlin was aware of nearby groundwater contamination when he built her house, a charge he vehemently denies.

"She had a one-year warranty [on the house]," says McLaughlin. "She never said anything until 1993."


Witching well

 Dan McLaughlin lives in an off-the-grid all-solar house. The old hand pump that he uses for a mailbox is evidence of his interest in water– and he's highly offended at any suggestion that he'd deliberately drill a well that produced contaminated water.

"I've been drilling wells for 20-something years," he says. "I know this area and I know I've got good water for the houses I'm building."

Houses closer to the Trading Post than Ann Messina's on Red Hill School Road show no contamination. McLaughlin drilled two new wells on a corner of his property across the street from wells that have stayed clean, and he says they're on an entirely different plume.

"I applied for a well permit last October or November," he says. "I was never trying to hide anything."

He says he feels hurt that the BOS enacted the emergency ordinance directed toward him that shut him down for a month– and especially that no one let him know about it or approached him for his input.

He points to big-ticket homes going up across from the Ivy Landfill with its known groundwater contamination. "Why are they building houses across from the landfill?" he asks. "What's the difference, if people drill wells and still can't use the water?"

What really has him upset are the assaults on his integrity. "I didn't want to have my kids hide their heads because of something their dad did," he says.

"Dan's a pretty knowledgeable guy," says Ekman at the Trading Post. "He understands the geography of this area. He's a good guy. He wouldn't have done it if he thought it was going to be a problem."

McLaughlin plans to put four 800-square-foot rental houses in the lots beside Messina. "I want good water for the people living here," he says. "I wouldn't put the time and money into this if I thought it was a problem."

Besides, he adds, "Poor people have got to live somewhere."


Alternate water supply

 Pat and Dave Simpson live down the road from Ann Messina, one of eight North Garden homeowners with a carbon filtration system installed on their well after they noticed a gasoline smell in their water in 1994. Do they drink the water?

"Oh yeah," says Pat Simpson. The water is tested before the family drinks it.

She describes her neighborhood as "kind of the poster child" for what happens when state agencies don't communicate.

And she's optimistic the county and DEQ will find a site for a community well, the latest plan to solve the neighborhood's water woes.

Albemarle's Ambler got permission June 29 to test the water on a nearby landowner's property. The next step– if the water tests clean– is to negotiate permission to supply water from that source to houses with contaminated wells. "We're sort of getting toward the end of opportunities," says Ambler.

If a suitable community well site is found in water-scarce North Garden, taxpayers will pick up the tab from another state fund: LUST– Leaking Underground Storage Tanks.

"The county's not in the water business," says Supervisor David Bowerman, and he doesn't think development should be allowed in areas without potable water.

Statewide, over the past 15 years, 525 wells have been "impacted" (DEQ-speak for "contaminated") by petroleum.

In Albemarle, 35 wells have had carbon filtration systems over the years, and 17 of those are active now. "From that you can conclude the Trading Post is pretty bad, because eight of those 17 are there," says Pitsenberger.

And while the Trading Post may be the worst, it is by no means the only one. At Hunt Country Store in the high-priced Foxfield neighborhood, three wells are contaminated.

"Great houses aren't exempt from groundwater contamination," notes Pitsenberger.

Free Union's Maupin Brothers Store has three "impacted" wells, as has the Thomas Grocery in Scottsville.

Ann Messina drinks the water from her well, but she's had problems with the carbon filtration system, for which Charlottesville Oil pays. She says for the second summer in a row, the bill was in arrears and the treatment company wouldn't maintain the system until it was paid. And she doesn't see filtration as a permanent fix anyway.

She fears the groundwater contamination will prevent her from ever selling her house– the Couric bill she helped get passed requires homeowners to disclose that condition to potential purchasers.

"Call a banker, and see if they'll issue a mortgage to a house with an alternate water supply," she says.

And as the mother to two children, she worries about the possible effects of lifelong exposure to toxic substances.

Contaminated water has turned Messina into an activist, and she's channeling her countless hours of research and dealing with government agencies into making sure other families don't find themselves in the same position.

"I think it's important to get this out," she says. And while she's taking the legislative route to change state and county laws, she nevertheless warns homebuyers: Beware.

The Trading Post, a.k.a. X Pressway, on U.S. 29 south is the site of Albemarle's worst petroleum contamination, and the cleanup is expected to go on for years.


Ann Messina lives near the Trading Post and noticed a gasoline smell in her water shortly after buying her house in 1990.


The Messinas use an elaborate carbon filtration system to make their water safe to drink.


Messina fears the four new houses going up beside her will draw petroleum-laden water toward Red Hill School.


Pastoral Red Hill School still has clean water from its wells, despite its proximity to a neighborhood where eight wells are polluted by petroleum.


Ann Messina still finds it appalling that the state knew about groundwater contamination– but allowed a well to be drilled for the house she bought in 1990.