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Gas Station Gone; MTBE Lingers

By Jeremiah Horrigan
Originally published in The Times Herald Record
January 21, 2001

Modena, NY:  It’s a quintessential American Country crossroads with a quintessential American Problem.

At first glance, the ram-shackle Big Saver gas station at the corner of routes 44-55 and 32 appears quaint, a red, barn-line building, the wooden smallness of which echoes a day when lumbering Buicks and DeSotos and Packards ruled the roads.

But no one who’s ever lived near this quintessential country crossroads looks with fondness on the now-abandoned gas station – not since MTBE was found in the surrounding wells.  Filtration tanks have been installed in the nearby homes and visits by state inspectors have become a fact of local life.

And even though the presence of MTBE has been known for years, the MTBE problem is far from solved. 

MTBE is a gasoline additive that is a suspected carcinogen.  It’s known to be a skin irritant.  It can also cause chronic headaches, light-headedness and vomiting.

Concentrations 20 times higher than accepted state levels were discovered in wells surrounding the old gas station in 1992.

“It’s awful, we never drink the water,” Sharon McCormick said last week.  McCormick, her husband and their three children live in the parsonage of the Memorial United Methodist Church, next door to the gas station.  They’ve lived there for four years.  The front porch of their home holds a half-dozen 10-gallon water jugs.

Last fall, things got worse.  While workers were removing 11 buried gas tanks, McCormick began seeing rainbows in filmy residues floating on top of water glasses.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t want to know what’s in there,” she said.

Not that the state Department of Environmental Conservation has been much help when she wants to know, McCormick said.  Every time she calls for information to Region 3 headquarters in New Paltz, McCormick aid, she never gets a call back.

There’s something Plattekill Town Supervisor Judy Mehle has also noticed, big time.

Mehle wondered aloud last week at how long remediation has taken, and how long it takes to find out anything g from the DEC.

“It’s real hard to get information out of them (the DEC),: she said.  “I had to file a (Freedom of Information) request a couple years ago to get anything.”

Town Hall is located several hundred yards from Big Saver.  Although the Town Hall’s water supply meets safety standards, bottled water is the order of the day there.

Ellen Stoutenburgh, the DEC Region 3 spokeswoman, said the agency is still awaiting a final report from its contractors on the toxicity of the site.

“It’s taken this long to pull the tanks”, she said, “because the DEC gives priority to providing potable water through filtration.” 

“It was not an emergency situation,” Stoutenburgh said.

As for unresponsiveness to public queries, she said, “if it’s happening, it shouldn’t be.”

Down the road from Town Hall, truck driver Bruce Carlew offered a visitor a glass of water.

“Taste the chemicals?” he asked, making a face.  “I never touch the stuff.”

His two sons, 9 year old Jeffrey and 7 year old Steven, hate the taste as well.  Carlew’s wife, Sarah, also sticks to bottled water.

The boys and their father have all suffered skin rashes this year, a fact Carlew dismisses as a result of the cold, dry weather.

“The water’s something you just live with.  We work around it,” he said.