Concern thwarts use of 2 wells

Black & Decker says pumping could hinder its cleanup efforts

Town hopes to prove safety

March 27, 2000|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Two wells that were once among the best producers in Hampstead's public water system remain in a kind of quarantine -- sealed off from the rest of the supply because of the threat of contamination by solvents from the nearby Black & Decker Corp. plant.

Town officials believe that their wells could be safe from the contaminants. But this month the company turned down the town's request for help in proving the water's safety. A Black & Decker official said the company is concerned that pumping from the wells could cause known contamination to move, thwarting a state-ordered cleanup the company is carrying out.

While testing for contamination from a gasoline station in 1985, Black & Decker discovered that wells on its site were contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene (PCE), cleaning solvents and metal degreasers that Black & Decker stored in above-ground tanks on the site.

TCE and PCE, also used in dry cleaning, are suspected human carcinogens, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. They were among the contaminants in municipal ground water wells in Woburn, Mass., whose residents blamed industrial pollution in public wells for a cluster of childhood leukemia cases. That contamination -- chronicled in the book "A Civil Action" -- led to a landmark cleanup program that is still under way.

Linda Biagioni, vice president for environmental affairs at Black & Decker, said the company has not determined how the chemicals got into the ground water, but that they were used at the plant, which manufactured power tools from the early 1950s through the 1960s. The plant stopped storing and using TCE and PCE in the 1980s, she said, when manufacturing ended. She was unsure whether the tanks are still on the property.

The plant is now used mainly for packaging, distribution and customer service, and employs about 500 people, according to another company spokeswoman.

`Not a good idea'

"We would like to help [the town] and we'll cooperate with them, but right now, pumping those wells is not a good idea for us or for them," Biagioni said.

"It's not a matter of whether those wells are safe," Biagioni said. "It's a matter of whether pumping those wells will have an adverse effect on what we're trying to accomplish by removing the contamination on the Hampstead site [of Black & Decker]."

Town Councilman Lawrence Hentz is frustrated with the corporation's stand. And he is just as frustrated that the previous town administration and council never insisted on compensation from Black & Decker for the loss of the wells.

"I also blame the town. We signed an agreement, and we got zippo out of it," Hentz said. "We lost two wells and in exchange, we got a real headache."

Hentz, who is an environmental engineer specializing in water, said he helped a client, the Frederick County town of Thurmont, receive a six-figure settlement for pollution from a gasoline tank leak in the 1980s.

In the early 1990s, Hampstead officials seem to have believed that they would eventually regain use of the wells as Black & Decker pumped and cleaned the water on its site, said Town Manager Ken Decker, who was not working for the town then.

At the meeting this month with company officials, however, Hentz and Decker were dismayed to realize that they might never regain access to the wells.

Completion date unknown

"We were a little dispirited to learn that the cleanup period might not be measured in years but in decades," Decker said.

Biagioni would not predict a completion date for the cleanup project but said the work could continue well past 2005.

A cleanup program began in the late 1980s, with a second phase begun in the early 1990s, Biagioni said.

The two Hampstead wells began operating in the early 1990s, as part of the newest section of Roberts Field, a residential development. They were used for a few years before the state ordered them closed.

The wells had not shown contamination but were ordered closed as a precaution while Black & Decker began pumping ground water, cleaning it and discharging it into a stream.

Biagioni said the cleanup strategy is to drill additional wells and pump water in such a way to make all of the surrounding ground water flow toward the plant, as if it were at the bottom of a funnel. If Hampstead resumed drawing water from the two public wells, she said, it could cause the ground water to flow away from the plant, potentially contaminating the wells.

But Hentz said that it is unlikely the contamination would flow toward Hampstead's wells. Existing monitoring wells between the town and the plant have shown no contamination. With additional data and sampling, Hentz said, the town could prove the safety of those wells to the satisfaction of state health and environmental agencies.

But it would be too costly for the town to collect that data and drill the necessary testing wells. Hentz and Decker were hoping Black & Decker would perform that work.

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