New state regulations will put restrictions on fuel storage systems to prevent gasoline products such as MTBE from seeping into Maryland's underground drinking water.

The regulations -- designed to protect groundwater in areas where wells are the primary source of drinking water -- require that all fuel underground storage systems have double-walled pipes and built-in sensors to warn of leaks.

"Maryland is moving forward and being very progressive in trying to address this issue," said Richard McIntire, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, "since the federal government has been somewhat slow to give nationwide guidance."

The Maryland Department of the Environment estimates it will cost service stations anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 to update their facilities, McIntire said.

"It will have a substantial impact in making sure that petroleum products stay where they are supposed to stay," McIntire said.

Much of Southern Maryland, particularly Calvert County, installed compliant systems after similar regulations came out in the 1980s to protect public water, said Wilson Freeland, Calvert County's division chief for buildings and grounds.

"In the '80s, we upgraded all underground storage tanks," he said. "All of our tanks are double-walled, have monitoring systems and have double-walled piping."

He said he had seen the same with most service stations and other fuel storage facilities.

But the new regulations will also mandate increased groundwater sampling and regular testing of tanks. They will provide steps that gas station owners should follow when a storage system is suspected of contaminating groundwater.

There is little information on the long-term health impact of MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) in public drinking water, McIntire said. He added that it has been called a potential carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The regulations are still being drafted and must be reviewed and approved by the regulatory review committee of the General Assembly before they become effective, McIntire said.

Underground storage facilities will have 30 days after the regulations become effective to begin sampling water in on-site wells and report the results to MDE.

All systems must upgrade to double-walled piping by January 1, 2009.

Fallston Situation 'Serious'

The push to enact new regulations about fuel-storage tanks comes as the state is responding to the disclosure that 169 wells in the Fallston area of Harford County were contaminated with MTBE.

"We have a serious situation in Fallston," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) said in a written announcement. He promised quick action by his administration to deal with the problem.

Theresa Pierno, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation vice president, said the proposal by the Department of the Environment "may be of some benefit to some areas of the state, but it just doesn't go far enough."

Because it applies only to areas where wells are the primary source of water, it will not protect people who live in other areas but still depend on wells for their drinking water, she said.

Pierno said a state task force report issued three years ago recommended that Maryland ban MTBE and use an alternative method of producing cleaner-burning gasoline.

"We still think that's the best solution. Twenty-plus states are in the process or already have done that," she said.

Peter Horrigan, president and executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Distributors' Association, agreed that a ban on MTBE is preferable.

"That is a better solution, a less costly solution," he said. "The bottom line is, we want MTBE out of the water."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.