A controversial soil-recycling plant proposed for Rosedale would release dangerous levels of toxic benzene into the air of the eastern Baltimore County community, a Johns Hopkins University scientist said yesterday.
Dr. Marc Donohue, chairman of Hopkins' chemical engineering faculty, said the company seeking to build the plant has seriously underestimated the amount of benzene that would escape into the air from gasoline-contaminated soil the facility would treat.
Benzene, an ingredient of gasoline, can cause cancer if inhaled.
The plant, which could process up to 185 tons of petroleum-tainted soil per hour, is planned by Environmental Recycling Associates.
That firm is a subsidiary of Bryn Awel Corp., a Towson pavement manufacturer that wants to use the decontaminated dirt in its asphalt.
If the plant were built as proposed, its benzene emissions would "greatly exceed" federal and state air pollution limits -- by up to 10 times, said Dr. Donohue, who was hired to study the project by a group of residents who oppose it.
Dr. Donohue's report was given this week to the Maryland Department of the Environment, which will decide whether to permit the project.
State officials plan to review the study, along with other objections raised by Rosedale residents, said Donald Andrew, chief of new permits.
No decision has been made, but Mr. Andrew noted that his agency previously concluded that the plant would not release unsafe levels of toxic pollutants such as benzene if it were operated properly.
The $5 million plant would clean up and reuse dirt contaminated by gasoline, diesel fuel and oil that has leaked from underground storage tanks.
The plant would remove petroleum residues from the soil by "cooking" it at 500 degrees Fahrenheit, then burn off the evaporated contaminants.
Much petroleum-contaminated dirt is now dumped in landfills or hauled out of state for disposal, but there are six soil reclamation plants operating or proposed in Maryland.
Dr. Donohue said he was surprised by his findings in the case of the Rosedale plant because he believes that the technology employed "can be quite safe."
"But precautions need to be taken, and it doesn't appear that those precautions are being taken," Dr. Donohue added.
He said that the company's projections of benzene emissions were incorrectly calculated and based on "questionable assumptions."
Dr. Donohue urged the state to look into whether the plant would emit dangerous levels of other toxic pollutants, such as lead, mercury and arsenic.
Robert Smith, a lawyer for Environmental Recycling Associates, said yesterday that he had not seen the new study.
He said company officials stand by their own studies, which show the recycling plant would not release unsafe levels of benzene or any other pollutants.
"We think what we've done is reasonable," Mr. Smith said.
"The assumptions we made were superconservative."
Most of the dirt stockpiled so far for treatment by the plant is contaminated with oil, not gasoline, Mr. Smith noted, so it has very little benzene in it.
But Larry Bonkowski, a board member of Southeast Association for the Environment, the comunity group that hired Dr. Donohue, said the study confirmed Rosedale residents' belief that the plant would be unsafe.
About 600 angry residents, including the area's state legislators, turned out last month at a state hearing to oppose the project.
"This would never go in a 'better' neighborhood, let's face it," Mr. Bonkowski said.