Letting the neighbors in

Policy: With candor atypical for a large institution, the U.S. Coast Guard invites the public to tour its Curtis Bay facility before the EPA decides whether to place it on the Superfund list.

November 03, 2001|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

The U.S. Coast Guard usually gives tours to schoolchildren and dignitaries interested in looking at its sleek cutters and shimmering waters. But yesterday, it showed neighbors a less attractive side -- old burn pits, salvage lots and gravel that may be covering years of built-up contamination.

The tour was to educate its Pasadena neighbors, who have been curious about the Curtis Bay yard since the Environmental Protection Agency recommended placing the site on its Superfund list of the nation's most hazardous sites in September.

Capt. William Cheever, the yard's commanding officer, welcomed questions from the residents who took the two-hour tour.

"This is a public facility. The taxpayers own it," Cheever said. "We're just assigned to manage it. That's the way I feel, anyway."

For about 10 years, Coast Guard officials have been assessing contamination at the yard, which is on the east side of Curtis Creek, over the city line in Anne Arundel County. During the past two years, the Coast Guard has spent more than $350,000 on its environmental studies.

Soil samples collected by its engineers revealed traces of pesticides, degreasers, metals and polychlorinated biphenyls. Coast Guard officials say the contamination dates from World War II, when more than 3,000 employees worked round-the-clock at the yard.

The yard's environmental engineer, Howard S. Galliford, showed about a dozen residents around the problem areas of the 116-acre yard. Of particular concern are the dry docks, where ships are cleaned.

Galliford acknowledged that the methods used during the 1940s, now long abandoned, likely contributed to the site's contamination.

"You'll notice how clean the floor is," Galliford said, pointing to the slab of concrete at the base of the dry docks. "If you were here 50 years ago, it wouldn't have been that clean."

The next stop was the "Cosmoline discharge area," where workers once put the petroleum-like substance inside buoys to preserve the metal. Next to that sits an area of rusted poles where, Galliford said, creosote once was "slopped on" to preserve the metal.

"That practice," he said, "is no longer done."

Residents were rapt as Galliford handed out maps and led them, in hard hats and safety glasses, past a sign that read "Think Safety" to the one-time burn pit and beyond to the yard's incinerator. Many snapped pictures of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Barque Eagle, a handsome training vessel currently under repair in the yard. One resident brought binoculars, although they weren't much help in viewing the problems under the surface.

Lester A. Ettlinger, an environmental risk consultant who lives in Pasadena, asked Coast Guard officials to arrange the tour during the EPA's 60-day public comment period, which ends Nov. 13. After that, EPA will review the comments and decide whether to place the yard on its Superfund list -- a process Galliford said could take six months.

Ettlinger and his neighbors asked technical questions about contamination, suggesting that they have learned a thing or two from their recent battles with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. over fly ash and anhydrous ammonia, and with the Maryland Port Administration over plans to create a dredge island.

Many who live in the communities ringing Curtis Bay said Coast Guard officials' candor was a welcome contrast compared with officials' responses during those battles.

"It shows they're seeking to be good neighbors," said James G. Kirk, a longtime resident and pastor of Harundale Presbyterian Church. "Public access is crucial today, and a lot of people don't even know this yard exists, or the scope of it."

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