Concerned that the remnants of an abandoned dump might foul ground water that feeds residential wells, state environmental officials have told the Har Sinai congregation to develop a plan to clean pollutants from the site of its proposed synagogue and day care center in rural northwest Baltimore County.
Maryland Department of the Environment officials said they will not certify that environmental concerns have been addressed at the historic congregation's 17-acre site until the dump's fill area has been removed.
Har Sinai's testing uncovered PCBs and other contaminants, but at levels low enough that it formally asked the state to impose "no further requirements" under the Department of the Environment's Voluntary Cleanup Program.
James W. Metz, chief of the division that oversees the program, said the request was turned down because some areas of the dump were not sampled, leaving the possibility that additional pollutants might be buried there.
"Since people in that area are using the ground water, we had to err on the side of caution," Metz said.
Robert W. Sheesley, Har Sinai's environmental consultant, said the congregation had previously pledged to clean the site, whether under state or Baltimore County supervision. Still, opponents of Har Sinai's proposed religious center cheered the state's decision as a victory.
"Now we know that any cleanup that they do will be a thorough cleanup supervised by the state," said Sandy Elkin, spokeswoman for the Worthington Preservation Group, a consortium of community organizations fighting the Har Sinai proposal.
State environmental officials made their decision days before a Baltimore County hearing officer is expected to rule on Har Sinai's plans for a 65,200-square-foot religious center.
Har Sinai, the nation's oldest Reform Jewish congregation, wants to move from Park Heights Avenue in Baltimore to the Worthington Valley site to be closer to its members.
Its proposal has become one of the more fiercely contested development battles in recent years in Baltimore County. Opponents say the project would bring too much traffic to the area's narrow roads, and they fear the religious center would tax neighboring wells and pollute ground water.
Four Owings Mills property owners filed suit last month alleging that the congregation's cleanup efforts polluted a stream that supplies drinking water, but a judge refused to issue an injunction stopping work on the site.
Harold Burgin, president of Har Sinai, said the congregation is pleased to be accepted into the state's Voluntary Cleanup Program, which limits a property owner's liability by certifying compliance with environmental requirements. He said the congregation welcomes the state's oversight.
"We are not just out there doing what we want when we want," he said. "We have tested that property upside-down and over and backward. This is another precaution we are taking."
Pub Date: 3/16/99