Building by building, the old Allied chrome works on Baltimore's waterfront is disappearing, as moon-suited workers carefully dismantle and decontaminate the 147-year-old plant from the inside out.
Now, with the massive six-year cleanup of one of the state's biggest hazardous waste headaches nearing the midway point, the owner of the old plant is jockeying to cash in on its valuable location near the Inner Harbor, once the toxic chrome dust that riddles the ground is buried 7 feet under.
Allied-Signal Inc. recently hired two local development firms to look into building homes, offices, a theater or a park -- or some combination of those -- on the 20-acre peninsula that juts into the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River.
James Rouse's Enterprise Development Co. and Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, two firms heavily involved in development of the Inner Harbor and nearby Canton, have been working since last fall to assess options for the plant after the clean up is finished in 1995, Allied officials say.
If successful, the company's move to redevelop the site may be a first, hazardous waste experts say. Allied intends to rebuild after covering up, rather than actually removing, the chrome contaminating the ground and water under the old plant.
Chrome has been processed at the corner of Block and Wills streets since 1845, when the first chrome chemical manufacturing plant in the United States was built there. Allied bought the plant from Mutual Chemical in 1954 and continued importing chrome ore from overseas and converting it for use in paints, in tanning leather and in making car bumpers. But the plant was shut down in 1985, putting 330 people out of work.
Decades of industrial activity have taken their toll on the site. Studies indicate that about 62 pounds of hexavalent chromium are leaving the site daily in surface runoff and ground water leaking into and under the river. Hexavalent chromium can cause cancer if inhaled and can irritate the skin on contact. It is also toxic to fish and other aquatic life.
Yet Allied officials say they believe the land can be developed safely after the contaminated ground has been blanketed by 7 feet of clay, sand, plastic sheeting and topsoil. The chrome-laced water now seeping through the ground into and under the harbor likewise will be contained by an underground "wall" dug some 80 feet below the surface around the plant's perimeter.
Nothing about this project is small. About 26,000 tons of steel, wood, dirt and rock from dismantled buildings and from piers around the shoreline have been hauled away. Of that, more than 6,000 tons were recycled as scrap metal after being scrubbed of chrome dust and other contaminants. Most of the timber from the piers was made into wood chips for composting with the city's sewage sludge.
About one-third of the total, however, could not be decontaminated and had to be shipped to hazardous waste landfills or treatment plants. Besides chromium, demolition crews also had to take precautions against another contaminant, asbestos, which was used to insulate many of the buildings.
William Blank, senior project manager for Allied-Signal, said the company owes it to its shareholders to try to recoup the mammoth cost of the cleanup. The estimated price tag has grown from $61 million when the project was announced three years ago to $80 million now, and state officials predict it could easily reach $100 million.
"We're looking at the whole spectrum of possibilities," Mr. Blank said. "As of this moment, we haven't come to any conclusions. We're meeting with the community, and financial considerations will come into play as well."
Allied's plans for developing the site must be approved by the Maryland Department of the Environment and by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, acknowledged Jack Turner, the firm's on-site manager of the cleanup project.
EPA officials will say only that they will consider whatever Allied proposes, but state officials say they see no reason why Allied cannot rebuild after the surface cap and ground water containment system are in place.
"Once the site is cleaned up [as required], we're confident it's OK to go ahead and develop, because we believe it will be protective of health and the environment," said Alvin Bowles, hazardous waste program manager for the state Department of the Environment.
However, environmentalists and some hazardous waste experts question whether the site will be suitable for residential or commercial development, as long as significant amounts of toxic metal remain in the ground.
"If I were a buyer, it's certainly not the first place I would want to go," said Linda Greer of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group in Washington, D.C.
Ms. Greer contends that removal of contaminated soil would be best if future residential or commercial development is planned.
"You really need a Cadillac cleanup when you have a Cadillac use in mind," Ms. Greer said.