Harbor parcel set for market

Toxins contained, AlliedSignal site OK'd for development

'Location is magnificent'

June 21, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

It is perhaps the most attractive real estate on the Inner Harbor: a 27-acre finger of land with panoramic views of the downtown Baltimore skyline and sailboats breezing past.

But 3 feet underground, the peninsula near the restaurants of Fells Point isn't so pretty.

Cancer-causing hexavalent chromium from the former Allied chrome plant is buried under four layers of plastic in one of the most expensive pollution-containment systems in Maryland.

Federal environmental officials plan to announce today that AlliedSignal Inc., a chemical and aerospace company based in Morristown, N.J., has successfully completed a 10-year effort to halt the flow of contaminated ground water into the harbor. The company will be free to market the property to developers.

The prospect of placing the peninsula on the market, however, is revealing conflicting plans for one of the last undeveloped parcels along the city's booming Inner Harbor.

The debate over the future use of the land is an unusual one, because most similar industrial sites are fenced off, not offered to the public, said Alvin L. Bowles, project manager with the Maryland Department of the Environment.

One proposal is to convert the former factory site at the end of South Caroline Street into a mix of offices, shops and upscale apartments. This change would be emblematic of the evolution in the Inner Harbor's economy over the past half-century.

Built in 1845 and closed in 1985 because it was losing millions of dollars, the plant that began as Baltimore Chrome Works was one of the city's first factories. It once employed 1,500 workers in a 10-story plant that produced chemicals that made hubcaps shine and fireworks sparkle.

Wages from the plant were the lifeblood of Fells Point. But the factory also cast a shadow over the city, spewing clouds of dust that drifted through neighborhood windows. The chromium particles also ate through the nasal passages of workers.

In 1985, after the Sierra Club filed notice of intent to sue AlliedSignal for harming the environment, the company entered into a court-ordered agreement with state and federal environmental agencies to halt chemical runoff from the site.

During its more than a century of operation, workers spilled an unknown amount of chromium onto the ground. Rain washed the chemicals into the soil and harbor, and underground currents flushed a half-mile-long plume into the ground water beneath the harbor.

Although the greenish mineral is found naturally in Maryland and is normally harmless, when it is processed to make paint and other products, it can assume a form that can can irritate the skin and cause cancer when inhaled over long periods.

Cleanup of the site started in 1989 and cost nearly $100 million, said Bill Blank, project director with AlliedSignal.

More than 200 workers wearing respirators and skin-protecting "moon suits" sealed the factory with foam and dismantled it piece by piece, removing 15,100 tons of scrap metal and treating it in an acid solution to wash away contaminants.

Using a backhoe with a 100-foot arm, workers dug a trench 3,200 feet long and 3 feet wide around the peninsula. They filled it with bentonite clay to form a wall about 70 feet down to bedrock -- all to prevent chemicals from seeping into the harbor, Blank said.

The peninsula was then capped with four layers of plastic, which was then buried beneath 3 feet of soil and gravel.

Although chromium remains under the cap and in the ground water more than 85 feet below the harbor, it has stopped spreading, Bowles said.

Environmental officials do not believe the buried chromium is a health risk because no community draws water from beneath the harbor and people are unlikely to have contact with the soil.

The court agreement requires AlliedSignal to own and remain responsible for the site forever, monitoring 16 wells to make sure pollutants do not resume their spread below the harbor.

But company officials want to lease the property's development rights to recover some of the cost of building the containment system.

Robert Greaves, an EPA supervisor, said the site will be safe for the public as long as developers seal the holes they punch in the cap while building foundations.

Though the company did not remove the contaminated soil -- which the company and environmental officials deemed too expensive -- AlliedSignal should be given credit for stopping the flow of polluted runoff, said Mike Burke, a spokesman for the EPA.

"Before this project, you had 50 pounds of chromium leaking into the harbor every day -- that is an enormous amount of heavy metals to escape into the water," Burke said.

In 1993, AlliedSignal won approval from the Baltimore City Council for a mixed-use development that would include 4.7 acres of waterfront park and a public walkway.

The city wants development on the site, which is so prominent it deserves a landmark building like the Sydney Opera House, said Charles C. Graves III, director of planning for the city.

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