Return To Sender: Hazard Unknown

December 16, 1990|By Robert Lee | Robert Lee,Staff writer

Every day, several hundred people shuffle past a site the EPA suspects may be packed with hazardous waste -- one of the worst in the county, as a matter of fact.

The site, in Elkridge Landing, measures 4 inches by 8 inches and is owned by the federal government. It is a post office box.

In 1984, Browning-Ferris Industries, one of the nation's largest waste-disposal firms, reported P. O. Box 8643, Elkridge Landing, to the Environmental Protection Agency as the mailing address of several of its hazardous waste landfills in the area.

In processing the information, the EPA apparently mistook the mailing address for the actual site of the landfills and nominated the tiny box for monitoring as one of the county's 29 potential hazardous waste sites.

State inspectors marched out to the post office and examined the site.

They reported back: "No waste is disposed of at this location . . . . No further action is recommended."

But the mistake has assumed a life of its own, and in the eyes of EPA officials, P. O. Box 8643 remains a potential menace.

"The interesting thing about it is you can't get your name off of that list no matter what," said Ronald Nelson, director of the county division of environmental health, who until last month supervised the state's Hazardous and Solid Waste Administration.

The federal regulations are supposed to prevent inspectors from writing off suspicious sites that -- unlike a post office box -- can never be thoroughly investigated. Nelson provided an example from Cecil County, in which a cursory inspection into an illegal dumping complaint yielded nothing.

"During the winter, we couldn't find any demonstrated problem of what we could do, because the ground was frozen and there was nothing visible. But the following spring there was so much erosion, some chemical drums were exposed and the apparatus was still in place to deal with it quickly," Nelson said.

Officials at the BWI-area post office assured The Anne Arundel County Sun that there are no such surprises lurking in P. O. Box 8643, which they now rent to another company.

"I haven't even noticed much mail going into that P. O. box, much less (hazardous wastes)," postal officer Roland Burrell said.

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