When Martha Pawliske-Herman asked about the lime-green liquid flowing from a huge storm drain at Dundalk Marine Terminal two years ago, state officials at first told her it was algae in the water or a chemical used to test for pollution.
Only after repeated telephone calls did the East Baltimore woman learn the truth.
Ground water and storm water running into the Patapsco River from the state-owned port property is laced with chromium, a toxic metal that can cause skin rashes and sores on contact and lung cancer if inhaled. It can also harm some fish and wildlife.
Ms. Pawliske-Herman, whose work took her to the marine terminal, said she was concerned about pollution that no one would acknowledge.
"I got the runaround like crazy," she recalled last week.
State officials have known since at least 1979 that chrome-contaminated water has been leaking from the marine terminal's storm drains.
The state's largest cargo-handling complex is partly built on some 3 million tons of chrome ore tailings dumped there from the 1950s through the early 1970s.
The waste came from Allied-Signal Inc.'s Baltimore chrome works at Fells Point, which shut down in 1985 and is now undergoing an $80 million toxic cleanup paid for by the New Jersey-based company.
The Maryland Port Administration, which operates the terminal, has failed so far to stop the pollution from its 570-acre site, despite a series of cleanup orders issued by the Maryland Department of the Environment and its predecessors. After more than a decade of foot-dragging and false starts, port officials now are taking steps they contend should halt the contamination.
They have begun fixing the terminal's leaky storm drains and are planning to treat the chrome-laden ground water and soil underlying the terminal over the next couple of years.
"We have some plans on the table and contracts to be awarded that will ultimately take care of the problem, to a great extent," said Adrian Teel, the port agency's executive director.
"I think we're on the right track," agreed state Environment Secretary Robert Perciasepe.
But some have questioned the state's plans, calling them little more than a Band-Aid approach to dealing with contamination that is spread over more than 100 acres.
Even if the plans work, the price tag could run anywhere from $10 million to $22 million. Furthermore, Maryland taxpayers will have to foot the bill even though Allied dumped the toxic tailings.
The responsibility for the cleanup is the state's alone, Mr. Teel explained, because the state bought the land in 1967 without environmental stipulations.
The state even contracted with Allied to continue trucking its tailings there until 1975, using them as fill dirt to expand the terminal.
"Chrome tailings weren't viewed as hazardous material," said state Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer, who also oversees the port.
"[But now] this stuff is polluting our harbor. It is making our operations extremely difficult. We're trying to figure out a way to fix it and also not bankrupt the state of Maryland."
The problem for port officials is more than just environmental -- the chrome-laden dirt under the southern end of the terminal is unstable.
The fill has ruptured water pipes and buckled the asphalt, disrupting cargo-loading operations and requiring repeated repairs.
State environmental officials say that the amount of chromium leaking into the river from the terminal -- about 4 to 5 pounds a day -- is nothing to be alarmed about.
Much of the metal settles in the mud near the storm sewer outfalls and interacts with the salty water, converting to a less toxic form. The rest is so diluted by the river that people crabbing, fishing and swimming nearby are not at risk, officials say.
All of those activities go on in the shadow of the marine terminal's cranes.
At Carnegie Plat
Crab pots and boats are tied to wooden piers at Carnegie Plat, a community of about 60 bungalows and frame houses sandwiched between the docks and a power plant owned by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
Far more chromium is getting into the Patapsco from sources other than the marine terminal, state officials note.
Sixty-two pounds of the metal continue to leach daily from the ground beneath the old Allied chrome works, they say. Bethlehem Steel Corp. at Sparrows Point is legally discharging another 38 pounds a day in its industrial wastewater.
But the terminal's chromium poses a potential health threat to construction and maintenance crews, who may come into contact with contaminated water or dirt. And the cumulative impact on fish and other aquatic life of all the chromium entering the river is largely unknown because little research has been done.
Scientists at the state Department of Natural Resources refused last week to comment on chromium and its impact on the Patapsco, citing Gov. William Donald Schaefer's gag order barring them from speaking to reporters without his approval.