EAST FREEDOM - Construction workers were digging a trench for a new waterline last month when Vickie Price asked to borrow some dirt for her garden.
Sorry, the workers replied - the dirt along Everett Road is toxic, set to be shipped off for incineration.
Neighbors said the freshly unearthed soil reeked of gasoline and diesel fuel.
East Freedom's newly constructed waterline, by most accounts a safe, modernizing influence, is in part the product of a decades-old environmental concern that still forces residents to deal with water testing, purification equipment and, some have said, reduced property values.
"The water is bad here. Period," Price said, describing the days when massive, often leak-prone gasoline storage tanks towered along both sides of Dunnings Highway.
And while the new pipe connection spares locals the trouble of continual well tests and the fear of chemical contamination, it's also an imposing new expense for those who've long relied on their own water supplies.
Exxon aid to area
Outside the old East Freedom schoolhouse, a prominent sign proclaims the sponsors in the "Everett Road Waterline Extension Project." It lists Community Development Block Grant funds, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Freedom Township Water and Sewer Authority, among others.
Nowhere does it mention ExxonMobil Corp., by some measures the world's largest company, which provided $150,000 - one-fourth of the project's funding.
"They're doing six or seven connections [to homes]," Blair County Planning Commission Administrative Assistant Trina Illig said. "That was added at Exxon's request."
It may come as a surprise that a corporation taking in nearly a half-trillion dollars annually would take an interest in a rural Pennsylvania water project that affects 18 houses, a one-time school and a small apartment building.
"ExxonMobil takes its environmental responsibilities very seriously," spokeswoman Claire Hassett said in an email.
While it's not readily apparent today, Exxon was once a major economic force in East Freedom. For decades, gargantuan containers holding thousands of gallons of fuel were scattered across the village, some bearing company names like "Agway" and "Philips 66."
An undated aerial photograph shows no less than 13 shining cylinders in one lot, a tiny sign reading "Esso" - subsidiary Exxon's name before the 1970s - at the forefront.
"It was a happening place. Really, it was," Freedom Township Supervisor and former fire chief Ed Bender said. Longtime residents described scores of trucks coming and going; a railroad siding once allowed companies to move fuel out by train.
East Freedom's naturally flat landscape and close proximity to transportation made it a center for gas storage, Bender said. A few large transmission lines still run under the township.
It started with a leak
In the early hours of Feb. 26, 1979, a passing motorist smelled fumes near one of ExxonMobil's tanks, a 420,000-gallon storage unit along Dunnings Highway. The tank, it turned out, had sprung a leak of flammable material just a block from the East Freedom school.
Firefighters rushed to the scene and sprayed oxygen-choking foam over the gas pool, which state police estimated at 9,000 gallons, according to a Mirror story at the time.
"I remember seeing the glitter of gasoline. You could see it flowing out the tank," said Bender, then a teenager whose father, S.E. Bender, served as fire chief.
Emergency responders closed a mile-long stretch of highway as the elder Bender told reporters they'd narrowly averted a deadly fume explosion.
Firefighters had prevented a catastrophe, but the long-term effect - additive-laden gasoline seeping into the soil and, with it, the water supply - had yet to be seen.
Neighbors said it wasn't the first spill in East Freedom, nor was it likely the last.
in the area
Despite the purification equipment ExxonMobil paid to install in her home and the regular testing the company provides, Nancy Glunt still refuses to drink East Freedom's well water.
Living on Glunt Lane, a rocky path flanked by a barn and a handful of houses, she's just over an earthen berm from the now-quiet ExxonMobil distribution terminal.
"You could smell it," she said - an acrid scent in the water, accompanied by the familiar shine of gasoline - all through the 1980s.
Faucets throughout the house had practically dissolved, her husband, Richard, said.
A Department of Environmental Protection study in the late '80s confirmed what some living around the terminal had already assumed: contamination by "volatile organic compounds," a catch-all for chemicals and additives often found in fuels.
It's not clear which specific compounds inspectors found in East Freedom, but they commonly include benzene, ethylbenzene and xylene. MTBE, a now-widespread additive first used in premium gasoline in 1979, has been the subject of health questions from the Environmental Protection Agency.
"[Volatile organic compound] contamination of drinking water supplies is a human-health concern because many are toxic and are known or suspected carcinogens," a U.S. Geological Survey report states.
A groundwater testing contractor carried out an investigation in 1988 "in response to a release of unleaded supreme gasoline near Exxon's loading rack area," according to a 1993 DEP report. The department's study around the same time found that the contamination had already made its way from the soil into the well water.
For those living along Glunt Lane and a half-mile stretch of Everett Road, wells have long been the easiest means to find water.
So, roughly a decade after the 1979 spill by the Glunts' estimate, ExxonMobil oversaw the installation of filtration equipment in every affected home.
"All this equipment belongs to them," said Dan Stover, who moved into a house along Everett Road in June.
Price showed her filtration system, a collection of metal lines and pipes nestled in an out-of-the-way downstairs room.
Those living around the terminal receive water-test reports through the mail, though some - the Glunts included - no longer bother to read them after so many years.
In 2009, Freedom Township officials filed a grant request to help cover a new waterline through town. The plan: to extend a line already installed near the East Freedom Walmart all the way to the municipal building, more than half a mile south.
The new line, of course, would render all the filtration, the testing and the well concerns unnecessary. The houses along Glunt Lane and Everett Road would be hooked up to the grid, no longer to rely on private underground supplies. Exxon officials said the equipment in the affected homes will be removed.
"Water quality up Everett Road is very poor. ... Everybody knows the water there has never been any good," township Secretary Suzanne Claycomb said.
And knocking a sizable sum off the project's reported $600,000 cost: ExxonMobil, whose officials also agreed to pay for hookups among all the houses affected by the decades-old gas spills.
On a Blair County Planning Commission map, pink-and-blue marker lines jut out in two directions, forming a backward "L" to represent the home connections and lines the corporation promised to fund.
"We are funding a portion of the waterline as part of our ongoing remediation work with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ... and will continue to work with the PA DEP as it relates to the health and safety of the community," Hassett said in an email.
After less than two months' work - digging trenches and laying lines, then resealing the streets - contractors finished the job by late-October. All that remains is testing and a mandatory connection deadline in May.
"This is really helping them [ExxonMobil], because it's getting us off their backs," Price said last month.
Price wasn't the only Everett Road resident to take a more pessimistic view of the company's help.
"It's definitely a cheap way out for them," Stover said, noting that his well pump will soon be dismantled.
While most city dwellers would assume tap water is preferable to well water - particularly when that well has been contaminated with gasoline - those affected by the change have complained that their once-free drinking water will now come with a monthly price tag.
"It's more or less forcing a bill that people didn't have before," Stover said.
And the bill isn't small: With Freedom Township residents already paying more than $60 per month for sewage, the combined fee would likely be about $100, many said. Some said they'd like to see ExxonMobil cover their monthly water costs.
Asked whether he could afford the monthly bill and $1,500 hookup fee, Elmer Aungst, whose house and its "good water" are outside the gas-affected area, said only: "I have to afford it."
Today, ExxonMobil's Everett Road site is a grassy field, the gas storage tanks long ago dismantled. A rusty barbed-wire fence displays two "no trespassing" signs, as well as a warning not to smoke and a contact number for environmental emergencies.
Before the weather turned cold, children played in a jungle gym at the nearby Everett Road schoolhouse while a grate hissed at the one-time storage site. A block away, a colossal pile of pungent, contaminated dirt waited to be shipped away from behind the Freedom Township municipal building.
At his car upholstery shop across the street, former East Freedom firefighter Sheldon Helsel said the new waterlines should be a welcome change - and dismissed anyone who's said the company should pay their water bills.
"They probably live next door [to the ExxonMobil site] and don't understand it," Helsel said, questioning how long the company can possibly keep testing and maintaining the water. "How far does it go?"
Helsel pointed to his framed aerial photograph of the township, taken long before the schoolhouse or Dunnings Highway existed, when the 13 Esso containers still stood alongside Everett Road.
Used to be, Helsel said, those driving through town would see nothing but towering storage tanks.
"Some people don't even think of that anymore," he said.
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.