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Exxon lawyer apologizes to Jacksonville residents

For the second time in 27 months, James F. Sanders offered an apology Tuesday on behalf of Exxon Mobil Corp. to Jacksonville residents for a massive gasoline leak that contaminated their water supply in 2006.

“We are sorry. This should not have happened. Our system of protection broke down,” he said at the start of his opening statement, seemingly addressing both jurors and dozens of plaintiffs in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

But Sanders, the company’s lead lawyer, also said for the second time that Exxon Mobil’s cleanup efforts have been effective and that jurors should not award the plaintiffs punitive damages.

“Do we want a leak? No. Do we not want to catch a leak? No,” Sanders said. “This is negligence. This is not punitive liability.”

Sanders’ opening statement in the second mass-action lawsuit stemming from the 25,000-plus gallon leak covered many of the same talking points as his first, including Exxon Mobil’s contention that a leak detector was improperly reset by contract technicians after alarming on the first day, allowing the leak to go undetected for five more weeks.

This time, however, the Nashville, Tenn.-based lawyer was aided by sleeker multimedia elements, including a 360-degree, three-dimensional, topographical map of Jacksonville to show how the groundwater flow in the area guided cleanup efforts.

All of Exxon Mobil’s cleanup efforts are under the direction of the Maryland Department of the Environment, and the company will remain in Jacksonville until a county judge signs off on a consent decree the two sides reached, Sanders said. In the third quarter of last year, 129 household wells had no trace of the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, an improvement over 69 wells with no MTBE four years ago, he said. There are 154 plaintiff households seeking damages from Exxon Mobil.

“That’s progress,” Sanders said. “That’s cleaning up.”

Even households with wells containing MTBE have nothing to worry about, he added, as both MDE and the federal Environmental Protection Agency deemed the neighborhood’s drinking water safe in the spring of 2006. The trace amounts found in wells are at levels 20,000 to 100,000 less parts per billion than what caused cancer in laboratory rats, Sanders said.

“The data tells you things if you want to listen,” he said. “The data that drives the decision-making in this case was fully transparent [on MDE’s website] to everyone.”

Sanders, as during the first trial, said Exxon Mobil would pay compensatory damages to residents actually harmed by the gas leak, including diminution of property value and emotional distress. Yet he noted that plaintiffs during depositions for the current trial would not give an exact figure for compensatory damages they sought.

“The numbers they are shooting for in this case don’t fit with the actual experiences you’re going to hear from the witness stand,” he said.

Sanders also addressed claims made by the plaintiffs’ lawyers Monday that Exxon Mobil has repeatedly failed to enact safety measures it has promised since the gas station was first planned nearly 30 years ago. The plaintiffs alleged no secondary containment wall was built initially and the existing containment system was removed and not replaced in 1992.

Sanders said secondary containment walls fell out of favor by the time Exxon Mobil built the station, and double-walled tanks — still the industry standard — were used instead.

“We changed it because we thought it was better, not to fool anybody,” he said.

Sanders acknowledged a failure on Exxon Mobil’s part to replace the containment system after 1992, blaming it on a one-size-fits-all system developed at corporate headquarters to be used at stations across the country in the wake of new government regulations.

“We made mistakes in construction of the station over the years, but none of it was directed at the results we have today,” Sanders said.

Sanders’ three-hour opening statement was videotaped for closed-circuit viewing in an adjacent courtroom with a crowd significantly thinner than Monday’s when lawyers from The Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos gave their opening statement.

The plaintiffs —collectively known as the Allison plaintiffs — began presenting their case Tuesday afternoon and are scheduled to continue Wednesday.

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