The state ordered a contractor to remove railroad ballast dumped in a Baltimore County sinkhole this month, just weeks after the federal government announced plans to test soil from the same rail bed for contamination.
The State Highway Administration two weeks ago ordered the removal of two truckloads that a contractor had dumped into the sinkhole on Falls Road, just south of the Baltimore Beltway, said Charles Harrison, SHA district engineer for Baltimore and Harford counties.
The state cited concerns that the ballast had not been tested for pollutants, although the firm that hauled the rocks claims they were clean.
"There was no certification that it was clean. It was not tested ahead of time," Harrison said.
The contractor, Corman Construction Inc., had planned to use many truckloads of the dark, fist-size rocks from the railbed to help fill the sinkhole under Falls Road for the state.
After the state objected to railbed ballast, the firm obtained stone from a quarry and finished the $175,000 project ahead of schedule last weekend, Harrison said. A Corman official could not be reached for comment.
The ballast, which is crushed stone used between and beneath railroad ties, may contain cinders or other residues from passing freight trains. It was dug up during the past year by construction crews building part of the state's light rail line.
Workers transformed an old Baltimore County rail bed into part of a modern trolley line scheduled to open next year. The entire line is expected to stretch from Hunt Valley to Glen Burnie when eventually completed.
Potts and Callahan, a Baltimore contractor that worked on the light rail project, hoped to sell 30 to 40 truckloads of ballast for the Falls Road project before SHA inspectors and one resident raised questions.
Potts and Callahan ran into similar complaints from Ruxton-area residents last year when its crews hauled away soil from the rail bed to various locations, including a school.
Preliminary tests revealed that the soil did not contain lead or other toxic substances in levels that posed an immediate threat to human health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, however, plans to conduct further tests next year to make sure.
Nancy Horst, a Ruxton-area community leader, said she became "very concerned" when she saw the ballast at the Falls Road site.
Potts and Callahan vice president Richard Hine said tests showed the ballast to be clean, but the state would not accept the test results because Potts and Callahan had not paid for them.
Another company involved in the light rail project paid for the testing, Hine said, and highway officials claimed they could not make sure that the test results belonged to the ballast in question.
Potts and Callahan is now spending $3,000 to test the ballast, which is sitting at the firm's dump in Bare Hills, he said. The controversy cost it about $30,000 in lost ballast sales, he said.
Hine said Ruxton residents who oppose the light rail system are raising questions about pollution in order to frustrate the trolley project.
"The state listened to them," he said. "What is happening here is wrong."
Residents deny they are trying to stall light rail construction, which they say is already complete in their neighborhoods.
The Falls Road sinkhole developed last year, when portions of two lanes and a shoulder collapsed after a water main broke, Harrison said. A geologist discovered underground caverns that enabled 1,200 tons of dirt under the road to be sucked away.
The state shored up the road and planned for a permanent fix this month, he said. The repair involved stacking different sized rocks in the hole, with reinforced concrete separating the largest stones from the smaller ones.