No one could have known in the 1840s that the gritty black fill used to build a railroad in Baltimore County would have residents worrying in the 1990s about possible exposure to contaminated soil.
During the past two years, construction workers have dug up much of the fill as they altered the rail bed to accommodate the Baltimore area's new light-rail line.
Spurred by residents' concern, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to conduct tests to see if the dirt contains troublesome levels of lead and other toxic substances often found in fly ash or slag, materials used to build railroads decades ago.
The EPA plans to look for possible "hot spots" of contamination along the rail line near Robert E. Lee Park in Ruxton, says James McCreary, a project officer handling the case for the EPA.
Also scheduled for testing is a school athletic field in Brooklandville where a subcontractor dumped some soil from the rail line.
Some Ruxton-area residents became concerned about the environmental and health consequences of the rail construction last year, after watching workers disturb the black dirt, which resembles a mixture of crushed coal, soil and gravel.
State and private scientists tested the fill material for lead and other metals late last year, but their results differed.
The tests showed "everything from no contamination to trace levels to light contamination -- enough that could impact the environment in 20 years and could have an effect on human health over a lifetime," McCreary says.
Faced with conflicting results, the EPA hopes to resolve the issue with its own round of tests, he says.
State and federal officials say that neither the rail line nor the athletic field poses an immediate threat to human health. In addition, neither site contains hazardous wastes requiring special handling.
The EPA became involved last year when a Ruxton-area citizen group notified it about potential hazards along the state-funded light-rail line, a favorite project of Gov. William Donald Schaefer. The line is to run from Hunt Valley to Glen Burnie. Most of it is to open this spring.
The Robert E. Lee Park Defense Fund and related groups opposed to the project hired private scientists to test the soil. Their results showed elevated levels of metals such as arsenic, lead, nickel and zinc.
Unprotected construction workers dug into the rail bed, kicking up dust that they and others could have inhaled, says Joseph J. McGovern, attorney for the defense fund, in a letter to the EPA.
Pollutants could have washed into nearby streams and Lake Roland, McGovern wrote, because state environmental inspectors found violations of erosion-control regulations last fall.
In fact, the state cited the contractors for several violations.
The residents wanted the federal government involved out of a fear that Maryland officials might not investigate objectively a politically sensitive state project.
As a result of the complaint, environmental officials placed the park on a list of potential hazardous-waste sites warranting investigation under the EPA's Superfund program.
The Maryvale Preparatory School in Brooklandville, where dirt from the rail line was dumped to build an athletic field, also appears on the list.
A preliminary assessment, however, revealed only a trace of metals at the Catholic school for girls. "There's no evidence at the school that there's any problem," McCreary says.
After investigating both sites, state environment officials sent the EPA a report outlining its findings. The state made public the document this week.
The risk to people will be "negligible," a conclusion based on the nature of the material and the limited contact people will have with it after the rail line is completed, the document says.
According to the report, the state found lower levels of arsenic, antimony, and copper than did the Defense Fund. However, it did find a higher level of lead in one sample than did the citizen group.
Still, the lead appeared to be within levels that scientists generally consider to be safe.
However, no one informed the state of soil tests taken by the Lutherville Community Association, tests which revealed concentrations of lead exceeding the safe level. Experts hired by the group took the samples from a segment of the light-rail line in Lutherville late last year.
A lawyer told the Lutherville residents that it would be costly to build a case proving that the light rail construction created an airborne hazard, says Terry Feelemyer, a past president of the association.
The residents eventually decided not to pursue the matter vigorously, although Feelemyer, for one, said he told his 14-year-old son not to walk along the rail line anymore.
Some residents still wonder if people who lived or took walks near the rail line received a greater than normal exposure to toxic metals from inhaling dust during construction last fall and winter.