Other explosives possible at site

Similar scrap piles nearby not searched, Army says

May 08, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

A military spokesman said yesterday that more bombs could remain hidden under debris at a former ship scrap yard on the Baltimore waterfront where 12 explosives were discovered this week.

Ned Christensen, spokesman for the Army's Fort Myer in Arlington, Va., said the bombs found by construction workers in Fairfield were part of a heap of scrap metal more than 20 feet high and that several similar piles nearby have not been searched.

"Large ships were dismantled there, and there is scrap and debris all over the place. Could there be more munitions there? Absolutely," Christensen said. "Knowing the history of the place, it's possible."

He said the Army's 767th Ordnance Detachment, which removed the bombs from the industrial land at 3000 Childs St. and is destroying them, has no plans to search the rest of the former scrap yard to make sure it's safe.

That responsibility lies with the owner of the land, the Maryland Port Administration, which would need to hire a private contractor or bring in the Army Corps of Engineers to search the rest of the site for explosives, Christensen said.

Darlene Frank, director of communications for the port agency, said yesterday that the agency will probably keep the site locked up until state officials figure out their next step.

"We have not yet had a chance to regroup and think about this yet," Frank said.

Cleanup halted

Keeping padlocks on the barbed-wire-topped gate to the former ship-scrapping yard has halted the cleanup. In December, the state awarded a $2.3 million contract to Potts & Callahan Inc. to remove scrap from the site and prepare it for development.

State officials hope to pave the polluted land, perhaps build a parking garage and another building on top of it, and lease it to a private company that might want to store vehicles brought in aboard cargo ships, according to state records.

The port administration bought the 10.5-acre parcel for $885,000 in November 2000 from a ship-scrapping company that made money by ripping apart old Navy vessels and selling the metal and parts.

One of the leaders of the company, Kerry L. Ellis Sr., was sentenced in 1998 to two years in prison for dumping pollutants and failing to protect his workers from asbestos.

The state conducted environmental tests on the land but bought it, Frank said, without knowing about the explosives, the largest of which was a 4,000-pound bomb like the kind dropped from airplanes in World War II.

Inspectors barred

During the state's environmental assessment, the former owner of the property told his employees to bar inspectors from looking at several large heaps of scrap metal, including the pile where the bombs were later found, according to state records.

A cleanup plan for the site shows 12 scrap piles to which environmental engineers working for the state had "limited access" because of the former owner's orders to keep away, according to a November 2003 Draft Response Action Plan by the state.

Bharat Bhatt, assistant to the president of EBA Engineering Inc. of Baltimore, which conducted environmental surveys of the site before the MPA bought the land, said he found it unusual that Ellis would bar inspectors from certain places, including the scrap heaps.

Usually, property owners give engineers freedom to walk wherever they want to to take samples and conduct inspections, Bhatt said.

"The people working for Mr. Ellis refrained us from taking samples from certain piles," said Bhatt. "Normally, when we go in to inspect a site, it is all available to us."

Bhatt said he was "really surprised" to hear that bombs were found in one of the scrap heaps barred from inspection. "There were not supposed to be any weapons on this site because it is a civilian site. If a Navy ship is brought in for scrapping, there should be no munitions left on it," Bhatt said.

Owner's responsibility

Searching the remaining piles of scrap metal, and elsewhere on the site, is not the responsibility of the Army's 767th Ordnance Detachment or the Guardian Brigade, spokesmen for those units said yesterday. The latter was called in from Aberdeen Proving Ground to help because it has specialized, high-tech equipment.

"We're emergency response, like the 911 unit, after ordnance has been found," said Christensen, spokesman for the 767th. "They don't go out and search for it."

Marshall Hudson, spokesman for the Corps of Engineers unit in Maryland, said his agency searches for buried bombs on former military bases, but usually not on private property.

"If it's a formerly used Defense Department site, or if it was actually a Navy base, then we'd be responsible," Hudson. "But if it was a private dry dock, or a company that did work on federal government ships, then it's the owner's responsibility."

Often in cases such as this one, landlords hire private contractors that specialize in searching for buried bombs, Hudson said.

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