Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Will a proposed Costco mega-gas station endanger Wheaton's residents?

April 5, 2012 - 01:08 PM
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A Costco station in California. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Costco, one of the world's 10 biggest retailers, plans to build Montgomery County's busiest gas station ever in Wheaton, Maryland, but not all residents are happy about having such an enormous fueling station so close to their homes. The 16-pump mega-station is expected to open in the Westfield Mall in early 2013 if Costco receives approval. The gas station, to give some perspective, is expected to handle 12 million gallons of gasoline a year, four times larger than a typical large station that serves about three and a half million gallons a year. Gas station dangers have not, a John Hopkins public health professor tells the Kensington Heights Civic Association, been "well studied" but there's cause to investigate.

"One of the signature compounds of concern is benzene a known human carcinogen," writes Professor Patrick N. Breysse in a March 5 letter. "A few studies have documented increased benzene and other compounds in the air around homes close to service stations. For example, a 2007 study in Greece concluded that gas stations are a significant contributor to the total benzene exposures and that this exposure increases leukemia risk from 3-21%. A more recent study in Spain found that elevated volatile pollutants (hexane and benzene) were detectable up to 75 m from service stations."

"Carcinogen" is a buzzword in any community, and that factor combined with the environment impact of such a busy location has residents worried. The station, which will be at the rear of the mall, will allow for dozens of idling cars across eight lanes and, as the neighborhood association notes, is a mere couple hundred feet from homes, a school, and (God forbid) tennis courts. "Gas stations can still pose significant hazards to neighbors, especially children," Scientific American observed in 2009. "Some of the perils include ground-level ozone caused in part by gasoline fumes, groundwater hazards from petroleum products leaking into the ground." Heavy traffic has been shown, according to a 2007 study, to affect how children breathe. Also of concern is the California Air Resources Board's recommendation to place gas stations at least 300 feet from "new sensitive land" and the professor's remark:

"... the risk is estimated to be 5 to 6 times higher that the CARB recommended risk. As a result a set-back distance of 100 m is not likely to provide adequate protection from cancer risk."

To Danila Sheveiko, the association's chair of the Costco Work Group, the professor's letter was proof "we're not crazy." He feels he's fought an uphill battle for the past two and a half years against this station and even now, looking forward, fears what his opposition will need. To participate in the hearings happening throughout the coming months, Sheveiko imagines a need for $20,000 to $30,000 to acquire the lawyers and experts required to testify on the station. Thousands of dollars and thousands of hours have already gone into the association's efforts. He refers to Costco's lack of site plan, lack of a traffic plan, and seems flabbergasted. And what does Costco make of all this concern? Neither the big-box retailer nor the Westfield developers have given the criticisms much credence so far, it seems, and Sheveiko says they "roll their eyes" when talking to the opposition. He describes a "county government completely on their side."

"We're completely intimidated," Sheveiko told me, "and they're just acting like billion-dollar bullies. Right now the burden is on us to prove hazard."

I've requested comment from Costco officials on the concerns and will include their thoughts as soon as I hear back. Costco first asked Montgomery County officials for approval to build the station back in 2010, and the Kensington Heights Civic Association began raising objections shortly after. Its members want the gas station moved to the other side of the mall to keep the traffic and pollution away from their residential land. The battle continues in 2012.

The local Sierra Club, at least, condemned the gas station proposal last November.

"Emissions from the cars," the Sierra Club wrote, "will contaminate the air and the runoff from the gas station will create a risk of contamination of the surrounding area drained by streams in the Rock Creek and Sligo creek watersheds. Creating a new 'mega' station that encourages customers to drive long distances to buy gas less than half a mile from the Metro makes a mockery of TOD. Especially since there are already 30 other stations within a few minutes' drive."

In the video above from last fall, Sheveiko presents on the many health risks he sees for the thousand people estimated to live in the 1,000 foot range. "And that is a school for children with disabilities," he told the crowd, "and they have numerous children with oxygen tanks. So this is a serious issue."

The Kensington Heights Civic Association has released a petition asking the Montgomery County council president to protect "sensitive land uses," although it contains few signatures yet. The council president's office, however, was not immediately available for comment. Expect more Marylander outrage this afternoon — the Kensington Heights Civic Association is holding a 1 p.m. press conference at the Kenmont Swim & Tennis Club to spotlight the alleged dangers. Sheveiko tells me he hopes the press conference will spur action. He was a member of Costco for 15 years before all this, and despite his frustrations and what feels to be a lack of compromise, he feels he has to keep fighting the station's present planned location. He lives in the second closest house, after all.

"It was sold as the magic silver bullet that would save Wheaton," Sheveiko said this morning. "Which is, of course, insane."

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