Penn community seeks justice years after massive fuel leak

Forty-five neighbors from a Pennsylvania community that was contaminated by a massive fuel leak more than a decade ago are still fighting for justice. Many residents of  Blue Bell, a town in Montgomery County, Penn., became sick in the late 1990s after consuming water contaminated by several thousand gallons of gasoline released from an underground storage tank at a local Gulf gas station. All of the affected people had wells or access to wells.

None of the plaintiffs have appeared in court since the case opened in April of 1999. Montgomery County judge Maurino Rossanese Jr. bifurcated their civil lawsuit, preventing the plaintiffs from appearing before a single jury. An attorney for the plaintiffs has appealed the judge’s decision to split up the case, but the appeal has not been ruled on.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Christine Fisher, one of the plaintiffs, told The Times Herald. She described her experience a “nightmare.” Fisher and her husband were using the contaminated water, which smelled and tasted like normal water, for everything from drinking and cooking to bathing and swimming. Fisher’s husband grew seriously ill and nearly died. Their horse, goat, and two cats weren’t as fortunate. The animals had been drinking from a contaminated pond and died from poisoning.

The contamination occurred after the owner of the Gulf station installed underground storage tanks. Manufacturer defects allowed fuel to leak through the tank lines, and the leak detection system on the tanks malfunctioned. Estimates on the amount of fuel that leaked before the problem was discovered range from 12,000 gallons to 50,000 gallons. The leakage was so severe that fuel collected in a well across the street caused the well house to explode.

In addition to the lingering health problems many residents of Blue Bell face, residents also worry that their homes and property have become almost worthless. Many communities once affected by an environmental disaster carry a stigma long after the land has been cleaned.

“You can’t sell a house here now,” Fisher told The Times Herald.

Plaintiffs staged a protest outside the Montgomery County Courthouse Monday in an effort to bring attention to the unsettled cases.