City is given 15 days to fix landfill 'threat' State ties escaping gas to lax maintenance at Monument Street site

August 10, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

A top state environmental official is warning that poor maintenance of the long-dormant Monument Street Landfill in East Baltimore "could pose a health threat to the surrounding public."

In an Aug. 1 letter obtained by The Sun, Maryland Department of Environment site assessment chief Arthur O'Connell told city Bureau of Solid Waste head Leonard Addison that methane escaping from the landfill in the 3600 block E. Monument St. could pose a danger to people. O'Connell blamed the problem on the city's failure to maintain the air filtration system at the landfill.

He gave the city 15 days to fix the problem.

"If they don't, I'm going to look at some enforcement action against the city," O'Connell said in an interview Thursday. "I'm not happy. I want some answers, and I want this fixed."

In response, city Department of Public Works Director George G. Balog said this week that the air filtration system is being fixed and there is no cause for worry. "The possibility of a health threat is virtually nonexistent," he said.

The closed landfill is toxic because of clandestine, illegal dumping of chemical wastes that took place in the late 1970s, according to an independent 1983 study. Many of the chemicals were brought into the landfill on city trucks, the study found.

The city has set up a system to treat toxic air and water from the landfill. But for at least the past two years, city officials have not replaced carbon canisters used to treat methane and other gases rising from the landfill -- despite the fact that the canisters become saturated and ineffective after six months.

Balog said that his department ordered new canisters more than a week ago -- days before the department received O'Connell's letter -- and that they should be installed "very soon." Balog said the ordering of the canisters is part of a review of city landfills he ordered in November when Addison took over as head of the solid waste bureau.

While acknowledging that the city has not tested the air for methane or poison gases since 1993, Balog said those readings suggest that there was no danger presented to the public.

Balog acknowledged that his department was behind in fixing the landfill cleanup system. He said former Bureau of Solid Waste head Ken Strong, who resigned last year in a conflict with Balog over repairs at another landfill, was responsible for maintenance of the Monument Street fill.

Balog produced a copy of a 1994 directive assigning "landfill management" to the solid waste bureau's engineering division.

That statement, however, conflicts with dozens of internal documents and his previous statements to department employees. As recently as June 26, Addison, who succeeded Strong, indicated to state officials in a letter that another bureau, not the solid waste bureau, was responsible for the Monument Street landfill.

Strong said yesterday: "I was told repeatedly that closed landfills were not my responsibility."

The department's own documents suggest that the city ignored basic maintenance needs at the landfill. When a pipe burst in the landfill's ground-water treatment system March 21, department employees could not immediately find a key to the landfill's gate, according to an internaldepartment memo obtained by The Sun.

A team from the Maryland Department of Environment was dispatched to the landfill to contend with any leaking water. Though the leak turned out to be minor, the incident brought renewed scrutiny to Monument Street.

Public documents revealed that public works had not replaced the aging water treatment system -- even though the city appropriated approximately $100,000 to pay for the replacement 1994. The most recent tests of the ground water, from 1993, show contaminant levels that exceed state and federal standards, according to documents.

In his letter to the city, O'Connell complains to Addison about "delays" and "evasive or incorrect information provided by your staff."

Balog blamed Jeanne Robinson, an official in the Bureau of Solid Waste engineering division, for miscommunications about the landfill. Efforts to reach Robinson were unsuccessful.

Richard C. Kauffman, whose family owns property next to the landfill, praised the state for putting more pressure on the city.

"It's great news," he said. "The state is doing its job."

Pub Date: 8/10/96

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