Arsenic at Swann Park

April 26, 2007

From the confidential files of the razed Allied Chemical Corp. plant in South Baltimore comes chilling news about a neighboring city park and safety concerns for those who played there: The soil had unacceptably high levels of arsenic. The 1976 memo, which was made public this month, is alarming because it raises more questions than it does answers about who, other than company insiders, knew of the tainted soil and whether the toxicity of the soil was shared with public officials.

But this much can be said: Someone either dropped the ball or buried it.

The discovery of the 1976 internal memos on soil samples at Swann Park has led to new tests, and they reveal that arsenic, which can cause cancer, remains in the park's soil at unacceptable levels. The city, in consultation with the Maryland Department of the Environment, wasted no time shutting down the park last week, and Mayor Sheila Dixon initiated an investigation into how this went undetected for 30-plus years.

It's unclear what public officials knew about arsenic levels at the park in 1976, but there should be no question that Allied Chemical had a moral and ethical duty to share the test results with public agencies.

To assess the impact on citizens' health, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner, has called in the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry and asked for a state review of other hazardous waste sites in the city to ensure that there aren't other undetected exposures.

But despite the city's prompt response, the condition of Swann Park is symptomatic of a larger unresolved issue - the cleanup of the old Allied site. It's not a simple matter, because the city and Honeywell International Inc., which merged with Allied's successor in 1999, share responsibility for the grounds. The city bought the 6.2-acre site in 1977 to help build Interstate 95, and it has been wrangling with the state for years over cleanup of the area.

In 2002, the state put the city on notice that it wanted a final remedy for the site. And they have worked out an agreement, which includes Honeywell, that begins the process of cleaning up the site.

Swann Park was closed once before, in 1976, because traces of the pesticide kepone, an Allied product, were found in the ballfields. It was reopened later that year. Periodic retesting should have been required, given Allied's stock of toxic materials.

State and city investigations are under way to resolve who knew what about the 1976 arsenic tests and determine the future of the park. The city so far has been upfront in its dealings on this matter, and all findings must be shared with the public. Federal authorities and Honeywell, which turned over the old test memos upon discovering them, should provide any other documents that would help determine the magnitude of the problem.

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