Town seeks factory's environmental OK State department to order more tests

September 05, 1996|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

When Cambridge Rubber Co. stopped making shoes in Taneytown 10 years ago, it left behind a patch of contaminated soil and three wells polluted by a witches' brew of chemicals that can damage kidneys or nerves and cause cancer.

The 14-acre factory at 86 York St. employed 1,000 workers at its peak. When it closed in December 1986, it left 165 jobless. A paint-chipped sign offering "over 200,000 square feet of floor space" for lease leans against one building.

Levels of the toxic chemicals have dropped since monitoring began in 1991, and the most recent test showed only one chemical still above the level considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Now, with a prospective buyer for part of the idle factory, Taneytown officials are hoping the Maryland Department of the Environment will give the factory a clean bill of health. City government representatives have been working with the former plant manager to market the property.

"Our interest is more than just [tax] income. We have the potential there to put jobs on the line," said City Councilman Henry C. Heine Jr. "The building is starting to deteriorate. It needs a paint job."

Maryland's environmental agency is ready to recommend one more round of well tests to see if the toxic levels have continued to drop, said MDE spokesman Quentin W. Banks. "If the volatile organics contamination has been minimized, there might be some soil remediation we might recommend, and then there would be no further action," he said.

The most recent results from the three original wells and four monitoring wells showed three containing 1,1,dichloroethene, an industrial chemical used to make plastics that can damage the ** liver, kidneys and central nervous system. Only one well exceeded EPA's safe-level standard. Two wells contained a solvent that causes liver damage and is listed by EPA as a possible carcinogen, but not at levels that exceeded the agency's standard.

One well contains a radioactive capsule that consulting engineers sealed inside after they lost it during well tests in 1991. The capsule emits little radiation, but could leak radiation into ground water if it broke, said Charles L. Zeleski, assistant director of environmental health for the county health department.

The factory's problems with chemicals date to 1940, when drums of solvent caught fire and exploded. State environmental officials who met with Heine and former Cambridge Rubber plant manager Elliott G. Bespolka identified the fire and explosion as the source of soil contamination, Heine said.

State records say that Cambridge Rubber had 23 storage tanks on the property that contained fuel oil, naphtha, acetone, toluene, gasoline, kerosene and a substance that makes plastic flexible. The company reported a spill of the plasticizer to MDE in 1974.

Banks said MDE learned about the well contamination in 1990 from Cambridge Rubber Co. Liquidation Trust, which owns the factory.

Bespolka said he had "nothing to discuss" and hung up on a telephone interview. Robert W. MacPherson, former Cambridge Rubber president, and Mahlon Hessey, the liquidation trust's lawyer, did not return calls.

Taneytown resident George Naylor, former chief cost accountant for Cambridge Rubber, said the factory used its well water to cool machinery. Drinking water came from the city supply, he said.

Cambridge Rubber gradually closed its plants in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia during the 1980s as cheaper, foreign-made shoes captured the American market. The company formally dissolved in 1994, according to Massachusetts state records.

The trust has tried to sell the property, Taneytown City Manager Charles "Chip" Boyles said. "With this environmental file open on the property, they haven't had a lot of success in trying to market it," he said.

Sale of the contaminated area could be hampered by lingering questions about pollution. A 1992 report from EA Engineering Science and Technology Inc. concluded, "The actual ground water movement within the deeper bedrock aquifer cannot be accurately assessed." The engineers reported that more wells would be needed to calculate the ground water movement.

"Brownfields" legislation to absolve buyers of industrial sites from responsibility for former owners' pollution failed in the 1996 General Assembly. But the idea seems logical to Heine.

"It makes more sense to try to rehabilitate industrial sites that are abandoned and have some contamination as opposed to going out and building on virgin land that might be contaminated in the next cycle," he said.

Pub Date: 9/05/96

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