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Sunday, July 09, 2006
BY JOHN WIHBEY
Several months pregnant and fearing the gasoline fumes, Maria Sanguino finally fled her Roxbury Township home in April.
It was not an impulsive decision. In 2003, she and her husband, Anthony, started noticing that the well water in their recently purchased home -- the young couple's first -- smelled of fuel.
They suspected the source was the adjacent gas station, Bain's Automotive, formerly an Exxon station and now a CITGO on Route 10 in Succasunna.
"We bought the house and decided to start a family," Maria Sanguino, 32, said. "But it's been a nightmare for three years."
That nightmare has only gotten more complicated over time, as the legal and regulatory system has failed to help, the Sanguinos say. It has also drawn a small business owner and local residents into a swirl of national environmental problems beyond their control.
After smelling fumes in spring 2003, the couple called the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Authorities confirmed that methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, along with other carcinogens such as benzene, had contaminated the home, according to DEP spokeswoman Elaine Makatura. Last year, the state banned the controversial additive as of 2009.
The Sanguinos believe there was a leak in an underground tank, and their attorney, Stuart Lieberman, says the tank leaked 400 gallons of fuel.
Within weeks, the Sanguinos' home was connected to the township water supply -- with the gas station's assistance -- and their private well was shut down.
George Bain, the station's owner, launched an effort in 2004 to have the property cleaned up. A 36-year-old business, the station has employed three generations of his family, he said.
"I ran out of money. I spent $1 million. But that's all the insurance company gave me and then they said, 'That's it,'" Bain said. He declined further comment because of a lawsuit filed by the Sanguinos.
The Sanguinos say Bain's cleanup has done little to help their situation. And the township has not helped, they said.
Roxbury Township municipal attorney Anthony Bucco said the case is a dispute between a private company and a property owner. Still, he said, "The town is monitoring it just to make sure what should be done gets done."
But the couple's problems don't seem to end.
This year, a cleanup contractor began trying to pump the contamination and burn it off. The couple began smelling fumes in their ranch-style home, said Anthony Sanguino, a 34-year-old information technology specialist.
"They flipped a switch and basically gassed us out of our home," he said. "We're deadly afraid that the baby will be sick."
They left their home to stay with relatives in Parsippanny, where they continue to do battle. With few state laws on the books relating to air quality in homes, the Sanguinos have had trouble get ting officials to take action, Anthony Sanguino said.
New Jersey has done little to deal with the problem of "vapor intrusion" and regulate indoor air standards, according to state Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel.
"We breathed that stuff for three years," Anthony Sanguino said during an interview at his West Street home. "We bathed in it. We showered in it."
Monitoring of the home's air and the water is being done, a process mandated by the DEP.
The Sanguinos, though, face other perplexing problems.
Because the gasoline additive MTBE is at issue in the 2005 lawsuit they filed, the case has ended up in U.S. District Court in New York, thrown in with large lawsuits, according to Lieberman.
He said Exxon, which is named as a co-defendant in the suit, has played an "appalling" game of hardball, moving venues and delaying for a year now.
But ExxonMobil spokeswoman Prem Nair said her company has had "no business relationship" with Bain's Automotive since 2000, when it sold its marketing interest in Bain's to Tosco, predecessor to ConocoPhillips.
In any case, the Sanguinos re main in legal limbo, even as they expect their first child in October.
Most state gas stations have already switched to using gasoline mixed with ethanol because MTBE carries such legal risks, according to Jim Benton of the New Jersey Petroleum Council.
Tittel said contamination by quick-spreading MTBE has been a problem for hundreds of homes in the state.
A 2000 DEP study found that 187 million gallons of MTBE were circulating annually through underground tanks in New Jersey, noting that the chemical takes longer to degrade than other additives.
Assemblyman Guy Gregg (R- Morris), who sponsored a bill to ban MTBE, says that MTBE use results from an ill-advised national strategy to make the air cleaner. Now, he said, "it's obvious that it was not an appropriate additive."
In 1990, Congress demanded that companies add chemicals to gasoline to cut air pollution, prompting a massive increase in their use of MTBE, a cheap addi tive. Now, it will cost an estimated $29 billion in water contamination cleanup costs.
For his part, Bain laments that MTBE ever flowed through his pumps. The government endorsed it, he said, and now small business owners like himself have to pay the cost.
So do the Sanguinos.
"We had a suspicion that the house was contaminated before we bought it," Anthony Sanguino said. "But we had the water tested three times and it came up clean ... We said, 'Let's give it a go.'"