Black & Decker offers tours of water cleanup system

September 07, 1994|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,Sun Staff Writer

Officials at Black & Decker's distribution center on Hanover Pike in Hampstead have made a standing offer to give their neighbors tours of the facility's ground water cleanup system.

Anyone who decides to accept will see all the pieces of an advanced yet simple process that water specialists say has worked well at sites with contaminated ground water around the country.

Soon, after years of legal challenges and other delays, Black & Decker probably will get the go-ahead to turn it on.

Randall McAlister, an engineer whose firm, Roy F. Weston Inc., designed the system, said the process' "motor" consists of 10 evenly spaced wells that will be used to pump water out of the ground, creating an impenetrable "hydraulic barrier" to prevent contaminants, including the possible carcinogen trichloroethylene, from leaving plant property.

The pumped water will be treated in a 60-foot tall "stripper," where air moving at high speeds removes contaminants from the water molecules. After treatment, the cleaned water is collected in ponds and flows into a nearby stream.

The contaminated air will be stored in a carbon bed, which can be removed by truck. Mr. McAlister said a backup air stripper exists in case of mechanical failure.

"This system is designed to strike a balance," Mr. McAlister said. "We want to clean up the site, but we also need to be sure we do not dry up anyone's well."

Some local residents said that prospect is what worries them most. But monitoring wells established off the Black & Decker property should give warning to Hampstead, which banned outdoor water use this summer, and the company if a crisis threatens.

Dozens of other companies have used similar technology in their cleanups in Maryland.

Kate Corrigan, a spokeswoman for Exxon in Houston, said the oil giant regularly uses a combination of extraction wells and air strippers for cleanups at service stations where gasoline leaks have contaminated the ground water. Exxon engineers consider air stripper essential because, unlike a chemical treatment process, it extracts all kinds of contamination, whether liquids or gases.

A "pump-and-treat" system is being used to clean ground water beneath an Exxon station in Fort Washington, Prince George's County, Ms. Corrigan said.

Environmental Protection Agency documents, obtained recently under the Freedom of Information Act, also may give residents some comfort. They show that the Black & Decker facility has cooperated closely with federal and state officials on environmental issues and has taken the initiative in bringing waste problems to the government's attention.

The EPA documents also reveal that roughly a dozen residential wells have tested positive for trace amounts of dangerous organic compounds. The amounts in question do not pose a health risk, according to state environmental officials.

But there is no clear indication whether the compounds came from Black & Decker, other businesses in the area, or even, as Black & Decker attorney Thomas Lynch has suggested, from the septic systems of the homeowners themselves.

The documents also discount suggestions that wastes buried under the plant decades ago could be the cause of the contamination. A February 1990 report, prepared by the Maryland Department of the Environment for the EPA, says that while tools that failed to meet specifications were discarded underground, these materials are "believed to be relatively inert."

Mr. Lynch said in August that contaminated wells in the Wolf Hill community could be attributed to the Mil-Spec fasteners facility, which is now shut down. He said it is unlikely that contaminated water could flow over a gentle ridge separating the Wolf Hill neighborhood from Black & Decker.

Officials for the state and Black & Decker have downplayed the risk posed by even illegal amounts, which can be small, of volatile organic compounds such as trichloroethylene. One state employee said a resident would have to drink several glasses of water each day for decades before the risk of disease would increase.

A handful of residents remain skeptical of Black & Decker's assurances. But most of the Hampstead facility's neighbors say the toolmaker's only mistake was a failure, until recently, to answer their questions.

On a tour, neighbors would learn virtually everything about ground water cleanup, Black & Decker officials say.

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