Harmans Residents Vent Frustrations Over Toxic Spill

November 11, 1990|By Robert Lee | Robert Lee,Staff writer

As federal environmental officials calmly assured Harmans residents that a 12-year-old arsenic spill was under control, neighbors fumed that they had been left in the dark about the spill and the remediation process until recently.

"I'm at ground zero and nobody ever told me anything about this," said an incredulous George Hall Jr., who lives across the street from the Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup site. "I went outside one day and there was a guy on the edge of my property in a decontamination suit drilling a hole."

Hall's complaints were voiced Thursday night at a public hearing at Harman Ridge Elementary on plans to contain an environmental hazard discovered in 1978 when one of Hall's neighbors, Richard Morehead, took a glass of bright green well water to the county health department.

The water was found to contain high concentrations of copper, chrome and arsenic from preservatives used at the wood treatment plant across the street.

The Morehead well quickly was closed off and the neighborhood placed on county water, but it took 12 years and five bound volumes of studies for the EPA to unveil its solution to the problem.

The EPA containment plan calls for: * The plant, Mid-Atlantic Wood Preservers Inc., to pave contaminated soil areas, to protect them from being stirred up or rained on.

* The construction of a new covered-cement drying area to prevent further leaking.

* Long-term monitoring of air as well as ground-water quality.

The plan has a price tag of $239,000, to be paid by MAWP's parent company, Fort McHenry Lumber.

"For the life of me I can't figure out why we weren't consulted back in 1984 or 1985 or 1986, when this was being considered for the Superfund list," Harmans Community Association President Thomas A. Dixon Jr. said.

"This is the first time anything like this has happened in my 22 years in the association."

Dixon said he had no idea any kind of threat was being posed to his community by the plant. He said his group would have pressured the EPA and MAWP into faster action if they had been included in the process earlier.

EPA Regional Community Relations Coordinator Francesca DiCosmo promisedthat each neighbor and community association member who asked would be informed of all future studies.

Federal studies showed the threat to workers and neighbors in the half industrial-half residential neighborhood is small, but significant enough to be addressed under the law.

Under the EPA's worst-case scenario, one person in 2,000 exposed to the site for 40 hours per week, 48 weeks per year, over a period of 40 years, would face a serious cancer risk from inhaling arsenic-laden dust at the site, one study reported.

The chrome and arsenic in the ground water, found at levels 200 times the safe limit in 1978, have dropped off naturally to the point where only one of the 10 test wells in the area still show traces of contamination, EPA site manager Eric Newman said Thursday.

Though the arsenic and chrome levels are diminishing, the EPA placed the site on the Superfund priority list in 1986. Some 75,000 people draw their water from public wells within a 3-mile radius of the site.

The wood preservatives got into the ground through two different pathways, Newman said. An overflow pipe at the back of the building allowed an unknown quantity of chromated copper arsenate to spill directly onto the ground between 1974, when Mid-Atlantic opened, and 1978, when the Morehead well contamination was reported.

The other problem was Mid-Atlantic's practice of placing wood on the ground before it had dried properly between 1974 and 1981.

Fort McHenry will also have to pay $6,500 per year for long-term monitoring by a private consultant with EPA oversight. Its deed will be restricted so soils covered by the cement can't be exposed without government permission.

The monitoring will continue for at least 30 years, and the deed restrictions will be permanent.

The EPA calculates that the risk to the public can be reduced to one additional cancer case per 100,000 people exposed if its safety measures are followed.

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