Old dump site raises neighbors' fears

Business development proposed for former Superfund property

April 21, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

A proposed business development and continued dumping on a former Superfund site just off Interstate 95 have Elkridge in an uproar.

Residents rallied in front of a Howard County government building, spread fliers in the community and streamed into a hearing last week with signs -- including one that warned, "If you vote for rezoning, we vote you out of office."

Some had just learned that they live near land where hazardous waste has been illegally dumped. They're outraged that a developer wants to build an office and industrial park on the 25-acre site on the west side of Interstate 95 at Route 103.

"This can affect our health; this affects our housing value; it affects the traffic in the area -- it affects everything," said Laura Smit, whose children attend nearby Deep Run Elementary and Mayfield Woods Middle schools. She carried a sign that read: "Please don't poison us."

The Zoning Board -- made up of the five County Council members, most of whom are facing elections in November -- doesn't normally draw nearly 200 residents to its hearings.

It temporarily ran out of sign-up sheets Wednesday night.

Last week's session was taken up with testimony by the property's owners.

Developer Kenfield LLC of Baltimore, which owns the collection of parcels with three families, is asking the board to rezone the property from residential to light manufacturing because it is contaminated with arsenic, mercury and chromium, among other toxic agents.

The Maryland Department of the Environment decided in November that the site is clean enough for industrial or other commercial use, but not for homes.

People who own some of the land testified that residential developers lost interest when they learned of the contaminants.

"The rezoning to a safe use ... is the only realistic way that these [owners] can have any sort of property rights," said Peter Bosworth, Kenfield's managing member. "Otherwise, essentially, their land has been confiscated from them."

After the land was designated a federal Superfund site in the 1980s, 600 tons of earth and 113 drums of hazardous waste were removed from the property, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

But Dave Cool, who lives across Route 103 and is spearheading the opposition, said he discovered the property is still used as a dump.

When he walked onto the unfenced land last week, he said, he found rusty 55-gallon drums, partially buried gas tanks and new-looking barrels marked "flammable."

Bosworth said he was surprised by Cool's statement.

And MDE spokesman Richard J. McIntire -- who is referring the information to the agency's environmental restoration staff -- said no one called his agency to complain about continued dumping.

"Why haven't we heard this from residents? Why haven't we heard this from the property owner?" he asked. "If barrels are poking up out of the ground ... we should have been notified."

Officials at Safety-Kleen, a South Carolina manufacturer of lacquer thinner and other products, did not hesitate Friday when they learned that their label was on barrels at the site.

Though he presumes a customer did the dumping, the company sent the Baltimore branch manager out to investigate. The manager found two empty 16-gallon steel drums bearing the company's label and carted them away.

"There was no threat posed, but we just want to take care of it and do it right," company spokesman John Kyte said.

Some residents -- Smit included -- say they don't like the idea of construction equipment exposing toxic materials on the site. They wish the property would be left undeveloped.

But McIntire said other contaminated properties in the state have been cleaned up and turned into businesses, subdivisions and recreation space without problems.

Though he realizes residents are nervous, McIntire said his agency inspected the Elkridge site last year and determined that it would not pose a danger to neighbors if developed.

"Their reaction is understandable, but in the public debate, often, rhetoric gets in the way of the truth," he said. "We're dealing in fact and science."

When opponents get their opportunity to testify next month, Cool plans to ask the Zoning Board to tour the site and bring county engineers along to see for themselves. He thinks the neighborhood would be better off if the land is cleaned up for a residential subdivision. Interstate 95 has acted as a buffer between his neighborhood and industrial parks.

Though Bosworth said that repairing the site for residential use would cost "millions" and still might not rid the ground of enough contaminants to permit houses to be built, Cool said examples of success can be found elsewhere. Superfund sites have been redeveloped into hotels, soccer fields and ice rinks.

Cool worries the Zoning Board could set "a dangerous precedent" if it decides that a contaminated property deserves rezoning. Industrial development typically brings much more money than residential.

"Anybody could allow their land to be contaminated so industrial monies can be brought in," he said.

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