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After the Oil Spill,
Life Is Good Again

By Marianne Kyriakos
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 5, 1995

Five years ago, a dark secret remained buried in the earth beneath Mantua, its only clues a strange odor and rainbow sheen on Crook Branch Creek.

But today, citizens want everyone to know: Life in this Fairfax County community is good once again.

Vegetable gardens ripen in the August sunshine, flowers burst forth and children frolic in sprinklers.

"There are no problems in the neighborhood, only solutions," said longtime resident and real estate agent Bill Rakow. "I call it 'Mantua Magic.' "

The source of anguish for residents of the 1,500-home community was the discovery of a huge petroleum leak from the Pickett Road Tank Farm on a nearby site just west of the Fairfax County line. The spill -- which dumped an estimated 200,000 gallons of oil into the ground -- temporarily polluted storm sewers and back yards in a portion of the Mantua neighborhood east of Fairfax City. The Environmental Protection Agency said the oil could have been leaking for as long as three decades.

Four families were forced to evacuate. An estimated 300 others signed legal agreements with Texaco guaranteeing the prices of their homes.

The tank farm, built in the mid-1960s, is still operating, handling about 40 percent of the gasoline shipped into the Washington ar\ea.

In May 1991, the EPA assumed the lead role in the cleanup of the site, which is owned and operated by Texaco affiliate Star Enterprises. According to an EPA update issued in May 1995, the oil leak is "completely contained and stabilized." So far, more than 33,000 gallons of oil and 35 million gallons of contaminated groundwater have been recovered.

But concerns remain. In January, the Fairfax County Health Department set up a panel of environmental epidemiologists to see if long-term health problems may have resulted from the leak.

Still, Texaco and Mantua residents are eager to put the leak in the past and get out the word that all is well again. This spring, Texaco hired a public relations firm to develop a marketing program for the community. To promote Mantua home sales, Texaco also is placing large advertisements in area newspapers -- a campaign that is set to continue through the fall.

Sally and Clayt Ormsby moved to Mantua 30 years ago, when they bought their "Phoenix flat-top," Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home for $46,000. Sally Ormsby, a member of the community remediation committee, attributes the neighborhood's triumph over adversity to determination and a sense of community.

"Before this happened, Mantua had a reputation for being a great community, and people paid a premium to purchase a home here," she said. "We had a sense of pride . . . and for a while we thought we were losing it. So now we are trying to get back to our normal life."

Ormsby said efforts are focused on restoring the community's long-solid reputation. "One of the largest hurdles is to get the correct information to the community at-large, and especially to the realty community. An example of that is, if you say you live in Mantua, some people say, Oh, that's where they have that awful problem.' "

The petroleum plume affected only about 20 properties in the community, which is nestled between Little River Turnpike and Arlington Boulevard, Ormsby said. "But because of publicity at the time, the stigma affected the entire community, when in fact the problem did not," she said.

In addition to a full slate of civic, charitable, religious and political volunteer tasks, Sally Ormsby is president of the Mantua Citizens' Association.

"The community is beginning to recycle," she said. "It's great to see the younger families coming in. At one point I said to a real estate agent that I play tennis with, Don't sell to anyone unless they have children. They provide us with young blood and energy.' " Ormsby raised two children in Mantua, both now in graduate schools.

Home prices in Mantua range from the low $200,000s into the $400,000s, said Rakow, who is an agent with Coldwell Banker Stevens Realtors' Vienna office. Most of the homes are 30 to 35 years old.

"We have virtually every style; there have probably been 15 to 20 builders over the years," Rakow said. "Most of them are brick, on large lots. Almost all have hardwood floors, which everyone is uncovering and polishing now and they look gorgeous, and almost all have fireplaces."

Rakow said Mantua is one of the few subdivisions in the metropolitan area where homes are appreciating in value. "In 1993, the average home in Mantua was selling in the mid-$260,000s," he said. "In 1994 and 1995, the average is up closer to $280,000. . . . The stigma is fading."

Thanks to Texaco's marketing program, Rakow said, there were as many home sales in Mantua through the first half of 1995 as in the same period a year ago. "That is contrary to the general market, which was down about 20 percent," he said.

Mantua boasts pools, tennis courts, 200-year-old trees, 300 acres of parks and recreation areas, and a private commuter bus to the Pentagon and the District.

Better still, Mantua Elementary School stands to gain considerably from part of the legal settlement Texaco reached with the community. Texaco is giving the school $600,000 to develop a comprehensive educational technology program that will make Mantua the only elementary school in Fairfax County with four computers in every classroom, Ormsby said.

The program begins this summer with teacher training and computer installations. Phase two, scheduled to be implemented in a year, will include linking the computers to global networks outside the school.

"Mantua is the same great neighborhood that it's always been," said Rakow. "People stuck together to resolve the issues. It was goodwill on everybody's part."

© 1996 The Washington Post Co.

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