Toxic sites dot city's waterfront

Taxpayers likely to be stuck with part of cleanup from Allied plants

Sun Follow-Up

May 07, 2007|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

Arsenic-laced Swann Park is one of several places along Baltimore's waterfront where carcinogenic wastes from long-closed Allied Chemical Co. plants are reappearing like ghosts from the city's industrial past.

Officials at the Maryland Department of the Environment say they are pushing Allied's successor company, New Jersey-based Honeywell International, to clean up or contain pollution left by Allied's pesticide factory in South Baltimore and chrome plant in Fells Point. Chrome waste and other chemicals taint not only the vacant plant sites, but also dumping grounds in Dundalk, Fairfield, Locust Point and near North Point in Baltimore County.

The cost of the toxic legacy could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and state and city taxpayers will likely be stuck with a portion of the tab - although how much is not clear, state and company officials said. Some community activists complain that the state isn't moving aggressively enough to make Honeywell pay for the mess.

The state recently asked Honeywell, which assumed responsibility for Allied when the companies merged in 1999, to go back and dig through archives, said Horacio Tablada, the MDE's director of waste management. State officials want to make sure there aren't any other ugly surprises like the one that forced the city to suddenly close Swann Park last month because of high arsenic levels in the soil.

"The question is, are there other areas that we don't know about?" Tablada said. "We are asking the company for more information, to have them go back into their old files to see if there are other areas where [waste] was taken."

Honeywell is negotiating with MDE over the containment or cleanup of waste beneath the state-owned Dundalk Marine Terminal, in the city's Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant and in the city-owned Swann Park. Activists want the pollution removed, not capped or buried, and not just in these three places but everywhere Allied left its waste.

Baltimore closed Swann Park, a popular spot for school teams and sports leagues along the Patapsco River's Middle Branch, after Honeywell turned over 31-year-old records showing high arsenic levels in the park. Follow-up tests showed 2,200 parts per million arsenic in the dirt, more than 100 times safe levels. Federal health investigators are studying whether there was any risk to children who played ball at the park or to neighbors.

A spokeswoman for Honeywell, which makes aerospace technology and alarm systems, among other products, said the company is cooperating with the state and city to contain the pollution.

"Chrome ore processing residue was used as fill material in certain areas around the Baltimore area during the 1940s until the early 1970s," Honeywell spokeswoman Victoria Streitfeld said in an e-mail. "At the time, such disposal was a common and accepted practice in Maryland and elsewhere."

A Honeywell predecessor, AlliedSignal, paid $100 million during the 1990s to build a cap over chromium waste buried at the former chrome factory in Fells Point, which is now the planned site of an office, retail and parking complex.

AlliedSignal ran the factory, which produced compounds that made car bumpers sparkle, until 1985. A second Allied plant next to Swann Park churned out pesticides, including DDT, kepone and lead arsenate, until 1976.

During the city's industrial zenith in the mid-20th century, Allied dumped tons of chrome waste and other pollutants in more than a dozen locations around Baltimore's harbor, both into the Patapsco River and along the shore, according to state records. Chrome waste was often used as landfill under buildings and parking lots.

Chrome waste often contains a cancer-causing agent, hexavalent chromium, which can be dangerous when it becomes airborne. Arsenic dust can also cause cancer when inhaled. But both chemicals are generally not considered hazardous when they're underground or buried in silt at the bottom of rivers or the harbor, health experts say. Digging up chromium or arsenic can sometimes stir up dust and create more health hazards than leaving it underground.

In numerous construction projects around the city's waterfront - including the Harbor East project at 1400 Lancaster St. and the Whitman, Requardt building at 801 S. Caroline St. - backhoes ripping into the ground over the years have uncovered the telltale neon-yellow streaks of chrome waste.

The lemon hue lurks under the parking lot of the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway in the city. In Baltimore County, chrome waste was used to build a road beside North Point State Park.

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