State orders probe of arsenic's extent

MDE gives city, Honeywell 30 days to submit plan for broad investigation at Swann Park

April 25, 2007|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,sun reporter

The Maryland Department of the Environment ordered Baltimore officials and a private company yesterday to begin immediately planning for a broad investigation into the extent of the arsenic pollution at a long-shuttered South Baltimore plant and an adjacent public park, which was closed last week after high levels of the poison were discovered in the soil.

Swann Park is next to an industrial site where the former Allied Chemical Corp. used arsenic to make pesticides before closing in 1976. The company merged in 1999 with Honeywell, which recently disclosed findings of arsenic levels more than 100 times higher than is considered safe.

MDE has given the city and Honeywell 30 days to submit a plan requiring soil and groundwater sampling and cleanup. The parties have 120 days to submit an environmental assessment and cleanup plan for the former Allied site on nearby Race Street. MDE must approve both plans and will oversee the process.

"As long as it gets done, we don't care how it gets done, if Honeywell does it all or the city does it all," said Horacio Tablada, director of the Waste Management Administration for MDE. "What we want to see is what's in the park, to know exactly what's out there and to eliminate any public health threat. ... In the end, we hope the park will be a park that the people can use."

City Solicitor George Nilson said he had hoped the state would allot more time to complete the plans for the investigation. "They've told us to do a whole bunch of things on a site that we've had no involvement in except running ball games," Nilson said. "We're basically starting out on a clean slate with the park, and it does seem to me that the 30-day time that the state has set forward is a bit stringent and has not really allowed for proceeding deliberatively. We have to hire a consultant, go to the Board of Estimates. You don't just snap your fingers and have a magic consultant come out of nowhere.

"We're going to do the job that should be done, which is the city working with Honeywell to find out the nature and extent of the conditions and look at the situation from a remediation point of view."

A spokesman for Honeywell could not be reached yesterday.

City Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein has asked an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to investigate health risks posed by the arsenic.

Tests by Honeywell this month, which were turned over to the state Thursday, showed arsenic levels of up to 2,200 parts per million.

The park was closed in 1976 when the pesticide kepone, manufactured by Allied, was found in the soil. But a panel of federal, state and local health officials allowed the park to be reopened that year -- though tests showed high levels of arsenic there.

Experts say prolonged exposure to arsenic can cause cancer and can lower IQ in children, and kepone is a toxic nerve-damaging agent.

The recent testing of the park's soil was prompted by 31-year-old Allied company reports turned over to the state this month as part of negotiations for a cleanup of the factory site on Race Street. The confidential internal reports show that Allied tested the park in 1976 and found arsenic levels of up to 6,600 parts per million behind home plate of a baseball diamond. But according to a memo at the time, the state health director wanted discussions about the pollution kept quiet.

Honeywell, which merged with Allied's successor in 1999, turned over Allied's documents about the pollution site to the state and city April 4.

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