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Massive Underground Oil Leak Threatens Quiet Neighborhood APPhoto planned

July 10, 1992

FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) _ Vicki McGonegal stands, hands on hips, in the driveway of her handsome suburban home as a young, hard-hatted engineer bails several gallons of oil out of a hole in her front yard.

″They do that every day,″ she said. ″A foot, a foot-and-a-half of oil comes out of there every day.″

Mrs. McGonegal and her neighbors are living atop an oil spill the Environmental Protection Agency believes is the largest ever in a residential area.

An estimated 250,000 gallons of oil has seeped around about 20 houses that lie downhill from a large tank farm a quarter-mile away run by Star Enterprise, a Texaco affiliate. The spill covers about 18 acres.

Four of her neighbors in Fairfax, an affluent suburb of Washington, have been evacuated by fire authorities. In one case, the underground oil had seeped a few feet from the basement walls and could have triggered an explosion.

In the town’s Stockbridge subdivision, the 300 large brick or frame houses on wide, sloping lawns once sold for $300,000 to $400,000. Residents say the houses have no value now.

″Do you know anyone who wants to pay what this house used to be worth to live on top of toxic waste? I’d like them to come by,″ Mrs. McGonegal said.

Residents say they expect most homeowners with oil in their yards will move soon, leaving the houses vacant.

″There’s going to be a whole section of vacant houses that no one can or wants to live in. What does that mean for the rest of the neighborhood?″ said Jack Maskell, who was president of the local civic association when the leak was discovered in the fall of 1990.

That was when oil started showing up in two creeks that run through the neighborhood. Local environmental officials traced the leak to the tank farm, but have not pinpointed the exact cause.

The oil is several feet underground and isn’t visible. But a strong smell hangs in the air around the dozens of monitoring and collection wells the oil company has dug as part of a clean-up effort that has cost $13 million and is expected to take at least 10 years.

″Every time I hear someone say it’s going to take 10 years to clean it up I think, ’I may not live that long,‴ said Harry Irwin, a retiree in his 70s whose large home with its carefully tended gardens overlooks the evacuated houses.

Star Enterprise, a joint subsidiary of Texaco and a Saudi Arabian oil firm, is digging wells and pumping ground water through a filtering system as part of the cleanup effort supervised by the EPA.

″We’ve turned on the spigot to clean it up,″ said Texaco spokesman Shawn P. Frederick. ″We’re committed to it and it’s not like we’re sparing any expense.″

Star is offering to buy houses in the area most affected by the pollution and pay moving and other expenses. Six homeowners have taken the offer, although it meant forfeiting the right to sue for health or other damage claims later. The oil company will not say how much they were paid.

Star is also paying a ″disruption settlement,″ in one case about $5,000, to neighbors inconvenienced by the spill and the cleanup.

Homeowners say the spill threatens more than their property values.

″Do you stay and live with that risk?″ asked Melinda O’Brien, part of a grassroots group trying to force the tank farm to close.

The 25-year-old tank farm houses storage tanks for five oil companies that supply the Washington area. The citizens’ group and politicians allege the tank farm is outdated and can never be made safe.

″We started out scared,″ Maskell said. ″Now we are frightened for ourselves and our children, but we are angry too. This has got to change.″

The EPA has said the fumes pose no danger.

″We’re simply not going to let people be exposed to anything that hurts them,″ said Richard Brunker, an EPA toxicologist.

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