Why was arsenic secret, mayor asks

City to probe tainting of park 30 years ago

April 21, 2007|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

Mayor Sheila Dixon announced yesterday that the city will investigate why high arsenic levels in a South Baltimore park were kept quiet for more than 30 years.

"Testing in 1976 showed high levels of arsenic in the soil," Dixon said. "I want to understand why we are only learning about this problem now."

Heading the inquiry will be the city's health commissioner, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, who ordered the closure of Swann Park on Thursday after tests showed arsenic at levels more than 100 times higher than generally considered safe.

The riverfront park, which is popular among school sport leagues, is next to a former Allied Chemical Corp. factory that until 1976 used arsenic to manufacture pesticides, including kepone. Arsenic can cause cancer and lower IQs in children with prolonged exposure, and kepone is a toxic nerve-damaging agent, health experts say.

The testing of the park's soil this month was prompted by 31-year-old Allied company reports. They were turned over to the state this month as part of negotiations for a new cleanup of the factory site.

The internal company reports - stamped "CONFIDENTIAL and PRIVILEGED" - show that Allied tested the park in 1976 and found arsenic levels up to 6,600 parts per million behind home base of a baseball diamond.

This was vastly higher than the 1 part per million arsenic level that Allied officials knew that members of a state, federal and local cleanup task force thought might be safe, according to a 1976 company memo.

The Kepone Task Force, which oversaw Allied's control of pollution on the site, was made up of state, federal and city officials and led by state health director Donald H. Noren, who wanted discussions about the pollution kept quiet, according to the memo obtained by The Sun.

"No press or public attendance," at task force meetings, the company memo said. "The chairman specified that none of the task force members were to talk to the press. ... The EPA, by public release of information could change the entire atmosphere."

It's not clear whether the company ever gave the 16-member government task force the results of its "confidential" internal arsenic test of the park, or whether the committee ever knew how high the levels there were, according to state and city officials.

Serious questions

But Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner, said the records raise "serious questions" about whether the task force was doing its job.

"In general, information about health hazards should be communicated to the community," he said. "Those minutes raise serious questions about the task force that was created to look at the health risks of the park, and that is one thing that we would like to explore further."

The task force reported to Gov. Marvin Mandel and state Health Secretary Dr. Neil Solomon.

Victoria Streitfeld, a spokeswoman for Honeywell, said yesterday that her company, which merged with Allied's successor in 1999, turned over Allied's documents about the pollution site to the state and city April 4.

"None of the former Allied chemical employees who were involved with the task force are currently with Honeywell, Allied's successor company," said Streitfeld.

"Honeywell has committed to remediate the site, consistent with current environmental standards and under the direction of city and state officials."

The city has asked an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to investigate the health risks posed by the arsenic in the park's soil. Tests performed by Honeywell this month, and turned over to the state April 19, showed arsenic levels of up to 2,200 parts per million.

Today, many states use 20 ppm as a standard for arsenic cleanup.

"There is really not a realistic risk of overdose of arsenic here - you'd have to eat a lot of dirt to have that problem," said Sharfstein.

"But low-level exposure to this arsenic over time is a real question, and that is why we are seeking some expert advice."

Allied Chemical manufactured pesticides at the 2000 Race St. factory, just north of Swann Park and beside the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, from the 1930s until 1976, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Meanwhile, the ballfields next door were used for decades by Southern High School sports teams and neighborhood children.

As the company made agricultural chemicals next to the park, it also used its 6.2-acre industrial site as a dump for other pollutants, including herbicides, pesticides and lead, according to the state agency.

In 1958, Allied dumped 200 tons of chromium - carcinogenic waste from a chrome plant near Fells Point - next to the park, according to the MDE.

The Race Street factory closed in 1976, and the city bought the land in 1977 to facilitate the construction of Interstate 95, which was built on risers high overhead.

Cracked cap

Allied built a clay and asphalt cap over the factory site, but this later cracked and might have leaked, said Horacio Tablada, director of waste management for the MDE.

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