Investigation, Cleanup Of Dump Sites Is Taking Years

December 16, 1990|By John A. Morris and Robert Lee | John A. Morris and Robert Lee,Staff writers

Less than a year after Congress made cleaning up toxic waste a national priority in 1980, health inspectors discovered 40 drums of illegally dumped marine paints at the headwaters of Whitehall Creek outside Annapolis.

Within two years, the federal Environmental Protection Agency swooped down and whisked away 610 tons of contaminated soil and over 1 million tires from an 18-acre site on Middletown Road.

Since 1980, 28 other potential hazardous wastes sites have been investigated in Anne Arundel. However, cleanup of those sites is taking much longer than the higher-profile Middletown Road.

In many instances, investigations won't be complete until 1994.

Early reports from the state Department of the Environment show the suspected sites range from the noxious to the harmless.

Two Anne Arundel sites -- Middletown Road and a Harmans wood treatment plant -- have made the National Priorities List of toxic waste dumps targeted under the federal Superfund Act, which passed 10 years ago this week. But one Elkridge Landing site was nominated for no other reason than it served as the mailing address for a major hazardous waste hauler.

The nomination process begins when citizens or regulatory agencies identify a potential site, said EPA spokeswoman Amy Barnett. Regulators then sample the air, ground and water looking for "alarming" levels of toxic chemicals.

Inspectors then award "hazard rankings" based on the threat to population and drinking water and the possibility of explosion or fire, Barnett said. A score of 28.5 or higher makes the NPL.

Middletown Road, with a score of 29.36, became one of the country's original 418 sites to make the list. In 1988, Middletown also became one of only 63 sites ever removed from NPL, which now lists 1,187.

"Middletown Road may never have made the list if it hadn't come so early," said Ronald Nelson, director of the county's Division of Environmental Health. "We don't have the (industrial) sites you would ordinarily associate with Superfund."

The Anne Arundel County Landfill in Glen Burnie scored 37.93 and was nominated for the NPL in 1988. But the EPA still has not placed that Dover Road site -- where carcinogens have been found in test wells -- on the list.

County officials, who fear EPA regulations and bureaucracy could slow the cleanup as well as increase its cost, are fighting to keep the Glen Burnie landfill off NPL.

Nelson, former director of the state Hazardous and Solid Waste Administration, said the Superfund process is flawed.

"It takes forever to get to the answer that anybody with half a brain would have come up with to start with," Nelson said.

Officials at Mid-Atlantic Wood Preservers might have shared that thought when they filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against the EPA to block their placement on the NPL in 1985.

The Harmans plant spilled a large amount of copper chromium arsenate in 1978, which turned the water in a neighbor's well bright green. The EPA later determined that contaminated dust on Mid-Atlantic's property produced a 1-in-2,000 risk of causing cancer to neighbors and employees working outside 40 hours a week, 48 weeks a year for 40 years.

Mid-Atlantic's suit claimed that it could clean the lot without federal intervention.

Having just completed five years of study, the EPA site manager conceded at a Nov. 8 public hearing, "It's a cumbersome process to evaluate the universal possibilities."

The EPA recommended paving over Mid-Atlantic's property at that hearing.

Regulators said the Browning-Ferris Industries landfill on Solley Road, where toxic wastes have seeped into ground water, may have qualified for the NPL. But the Pasadena site was never targeted for a Superfund cleanup because BFI already had agreed to do the work under state supervision, said John Goheen, a Department of the Environment spokesman.

Removing and cleaning the tainted ground water -- discovered in 1984 -- is scheduled to begin in late 1991. That cleanup is likely to continue for at least 20 years.

The problems at BFI, like many other sites, can be traced to unregulated dumping before Congress passed the first hazardous waste regulations in 1976.

"When a lot these sites were created, I'm not sure there was anything known as hazardous waste," said Nelson.

"(Industries) didn't feel they were responsible for it (toxic waste) once it left their hands," said Evelyn Stein, spokeswoman for the county health department. "Now, they are responsible from the cradle to the grave."

Between 1961 and 1977, Honeywell Inc., a manufacturer of communications equipment, dumped 450 gallons of hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen, and 2,100 gallons of caustic and sulfuric acid rinse water every day into dry-wells behind its Second Street plant in West Annapolis. It continued dumping the acid rinse -- within a quarter-mile of the Annapolis drinking water supply -- until stricter regulations were adopted in 1985.

The state began supervising the cleanup of the 8-foot-wide and 40-foot-deep dry wells and surrounding ground water in 1989.

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