An effort to halt a planned 16-pump gas station at the Costco currently under construction in Wheaton failed Monday after county health officials could not determine whether it was a health risk.
Without that determination, a Montgomery County Council committee chose not to recommend passage of a zoning text amendment that would prohibit the gas station.
ZTA 12-07, proposed in April by Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park, would ban any gas stations with more than 3.6 million gallons of annual volume from being built within 1,000 feet of any school, park, playground or other cultural, entertainment or recreational use.
The Costco station, at Westfield Wheaton shopping mall, would be the county’s largest with an expected annual volume of 12 million gallons per year. It would be within 1,000 feet of the Kenmont Swim & Tennis Club near University Boulevard.
The county’s Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health and Human Services contacted corresponding state agencies and determined it did not have the “breadth of knowledge” to weigh in on competing claims from Costco consultants and experts hired by the nearby Kensington Heights Civic Association, which opposes the station.
Costco consultants say carbon monoxide tests at Costco’s Sterling, Va., gas station found levels well below U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, and that noise and odor studies further prove there will be little change in the surrounding neighborhood. Community-hired experts argue a gas station of the planned size poses health risks, citing Greek, Spanish and California studies that concluded exhaust from idling vehicles and airborne chemicals from gasoline would expose the residents to an excess amount of benzene, a carcinogen that the studies linked to leukemia.
“I think there is merit to this ZTA. I also do not think we will determine the fate of this ZTA based on health effects because we have conflicting information on health effects,” said Councilman George Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park.
Leventhal and Councilwoman Nancy Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park voted against recommending the ZTA in Monday’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee hearing. Elrich, the third member of the committee, voted in support of his legislation.
“This is no different than, I can find people who say there’s no global warming. I can find scientists, not people, who will say cigarettes don’t have negative health impacts,” Elrich said. “What I’m trying to do is make this as safe as possible and it’s not unusual for the council to err on the side of being safe.”
County health officials contacted the Maryland Department of the Environment and the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to create a community profile of the surrounding area. In a July 5 memo to Council President Roger Berliner, DHHS Director Uma Ahluwalia and DEP Director Robert Hoyt wrote that neither department has the “in-house expertise or resources,” to conduct a health impact assessment for the gas station site.
“Part of the challenge here is figuring out what’s the actual exposure,” said Dr. Clifford Mitchell, director of the Center for Environmental Health Coordination at the DHMH. “A lot of what we understand about the chemicals associated with gasoline actually comes from the occupational world, from how workers are affected in industrial settings. Chemicals in the air are not just coming from gasoline stations. They’re coming from vehicles, lawnmowers, any gas-powered devices.”
In Prince George’s County, a gas station must be at least 300 feet away from a school, outdoor playground, library or hospital. The most stringent gas station distance standards council staff found are in Oakland, N.J., a Bergen County borough where a gas station must be at least 400 feet from a school, playground, place of worship or other public use.
The 1,000-foot measure in Elrich’s bill is based on the EPA’s 2011 voluntary school-siting guidelines.
According to information on EPA’s website, land use decisions are up to local governments and beyond the scope of the guidelines.
The legislation was co-sponsored by council members Valerie Ervin (D-Dist 5) of Silver Spring, Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring, Hans Riemer (D-At large) of Silver Spring and Craig Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown, although Rice said he’s no longer sure he will support the bill. County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) came out against the ZTA in a July 5 memo.
“Obviously, I signed on to this because I think it’s important to us for us to consider health implications near to where kids are going to be playing, and where they’re going to go to school,” Rice said. “The concerning part is hearing from the scientists that there really isn’t that hard concrete evidence that this gas station is an unnecessary evil.”