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Of wells and hot tubs at the Exxon trial

Two notes from observing testimony the last few days in Jacksonville residents’ mass-action lawsuit against Exxon Mobil Corp. stemming from a 25,000-plus-gallon gas station leak in 2006.

– One argument I do not remember hearing during the first trial regarding possible contamination concerned the depth of drinking wells. Dr. Richard K. Spruill, a hydrogeologist and the plaintiffs’ first expert witness, said 80 percent of the water-supply wells identified by Exxon Mobil were between 200- and 500-feet deep, but only 9 percent of the company’s monitoring wells go deeper than 150 feet.

“Can you find contamination if you don’t look for it?” Ted Flerlage, the plaintiffs’ lead lawyer, asked rhetorically, drawing a sustained objection from the defense.

Spruill challenged Exxon Mobil’s claim that the contamination was largely confined to a “strike zone” around the gas station, saying the area’s geology made groundwater flow was much more complex.

“The failure in my mind is the understanding of the flow of the groundwater system,” Spruill testified. “It should have been a very high focus of the investigation.”

– While expert testimony can feel like a choreographed dance, residents’ testimonies feel raw and emotional, for obvious reasons. Rochelle Roth lives on Katie Road in Jacksonville and told jurors how her and her husband’s plan to retire to South Carolina where her daughter and grandchild live have been put on hold because they cannot sell their home. (On cross-examination, it was pointed out that at least five nearby homes were sold since 2008.)

“I can’t make my current problem someone’s future problem,” she said. “I can’t keep [my house]. I can’t sell it. I’m stuck.”

Roth testified that since the spill she has occasionally broken out in hives and stopped having people over because “I was sick of fielding questions. It became a point of embarrassment.”

“I was tired and irritable,” she continued. “In my opinion, I didn’t look good anymore.”

Hosting guests often meant using a hot tub in her backyard, but Roth said that has been shut down since 2007. Jurors also saw a photo of Roth’s backyard garden and goldfish pond, which Roth said she can no longer enjoy.

“To me, this was a wonderful thing,” she said. “I’m a city girl; I never saw a hummingbird in my life. That backyard was my vacation.”

The leak is never far from her thoughts, Roth said.

“If you have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, your mind starts working and there goes the night,” she said.