Of the two million underground fuel storage tanks registered in the United States, a quarter of them are said to be leaking gasoline. Most are corroded containers beneath gas stations. In Maryland, 16,000 tanks are believed to be leaking.
A recent federal law requires bad tanks to be replaced with leak-proof containers made of fiberglass or coated steel by 1998. The tainted dirt around the old tanks also will have to be removed and treated. These necessities have given rise to the relatively new "soil recycling" industry.
Six soil recycling facilities are operating or being planned in our state. None is more controversial than the $5 million plant that Bryn Awel Corp., a Towson pavement manufacturer, wants to build in the Rosedale section of eastern Baltimore County. The company would use the treated dirt to make asphalt. However, since getting wind of the project last year, an angry and well-organized group of Rosedale residents has expressed fears that the facility's "cooking" of tainted soil will emit unacceptably high amounts of pollution.
State environmental officials will decide whether to issue a permit for the plant. So far they have agreed with Bryn Awel that the facility will pose no threat if properly operated, and will, in fact, emit no more pollution than does a gas station. A maximum of three percent of the soil will be contaminated with gasoline, Bryn Awel also has claimed.
But now comes a contradicting report from the chairman of Johns Hopkins University's chemical engineering faculty, who was hired by the residents to study the proposal and determine whether the plant would pose a threat to the environment. Not too surprisingly, the Hopkins scientist reported last week that his clients are correct: Bryn Awel has underestimated the levels of cancer-causing benzene that the plant would emit into the air.
The residents are understandably tired of having such facilities in their back yard, including the Pulaski Highway trash incinerator and the Back River sewage plant. Yet the fact remains that the plant would be located in an area that has been heavily industrialized for much of this century. The state should indeed give serious consideration to the Hopkins scientist's study and all other available evidence. But if the plant meets state requirements, then the permit should be issued.
After all, mountains of gas-tainted dirt will soon begin to rise all over the country. Some of it can be used to cap landfills, but most will probably have to be recycled at plants like the one Bryn Awel proposes in Rosedale. Yes, it's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.