EPA orders Arundel cleanup

Pharmaceutical plant told to comply or face fines of $32,500 a day

October 26, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,Sun reporter

The owner of a dormant Brooklyn Park pharmaceutical plant, which was found to have open chemicals and 50,000 gallons of hazardous waste on its property, has been ordered to clean up the site by year's end or face federal fines of up to $32,500 a day.

A directive issued this week by the Environmental Protection Agency requires Consolidated Pharmaceuticals Inc. to remove a tank of flesh-eating hydrochloric acid by the end of the month and a host of other toxic chemicals by Dec. 31.

Environmental regulators and Anne Arundel County officials say those pollutants pose a fire hazard and an imminent threat to public health. The warehouse and tank-storage area are within a mile of three schools and a short walk from homes and a neighborhood playground.

State officials had issued an order in May for the cleanup. Federal regulators said they will step in themselves to rid the site of pollutants if Consolidated does not act quickly enough. They have estimated that the cleanup cost could exceed $1 million.

"That's what Anne Arundel County wanted and what we wanted - to allow for efficient enforcement and cleanup to happen," said Robert Ballinger, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

An attorney representing the company said he was "surprised" by the federal response.

"All of a sudden, the agency has given the company these deadlines, and whether they are realistic remains to be seen," said Annapolis attorney Charles R. Schaller, who accused the EPA of acting "without any true discussion of practical matters."

Once part of a penicillin-manufacturing operation, the plant has been cited for unauthorized dumping and spills over the past two decades. In 1988, a spill of hazardous liquid sent 10 families to the hospital. In 1992, another spill and accusations of unlawful storage of hazardous materials led to an indictment of a previous owner, Kanasco Ltd.

The site has been inactive for the past eight years under Consolidated, which took control in 1994, according to federal regulators. But in July, Maryland's environmental agency fined the owner $100,000 - the state maximum - after an investigation uncovered multiple violations for improperly labeling, storing and dating chemicals. Consolidated has filed an appeal.

Gregory Ham, on-scene coordinator with the EPA's hazardous cleanup division, said that on the farm of 20 above-ground tanks, he found nine that were rusting and empty, three or four with water containing alcohol and caustic solvents, and one holding 2,500 gallons of hydrochloric acid with fumes seeping. He said he also found a scrubber that was leaking hydrochloric acid, corroded pipes on the tanks and a lab with hundreds of bottles of chemical waste.

Of more concern was that the hydrochloric acid was stored next to a chemical compound that could cause an explosive reaction and a toxic plume if they were to mix.

While acknowledging some progress to rid the site of pollutants, regulators have accused Consolidated of not responding promptly. The company was hoping to sell the chemicals and asked for postponements of 30 days and then 120 days to remedy the issues, they said.

"We started this in May, and now it's October," Ham said. "We've given them some time to take care of this. We've asked them repeatedly for more information [and] ... asked for progress reports."

The federal order also requires Consolidated to draft a plan to protect workers and residents from pollutants and to bolster security there, according to a county statement. No groundskeeper was at the site during a recent visit by a reporter, although one was supposed to be there.

The fear of a "potentially catastrophic fire" spurred Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold to call this month for swift action by federal regulators, citing numerous violations of the county fire code.

Responding to a request by state and federal officials, the county Fire Department's hazardous material experts inspected the plant and discovered the chemical tanks containing the hydrochloric acid, fuel oil and solvents. The fire alarm system was not working, and the building's sprinkler system was deemed ineffective to combat a fire or explosion.

State environmental officials said they needed the county's help to make the case for the EPA to take immediate action.

"I am pleased with their recognition of the seriousness of this matter and their willingness to act promptly," Leopold said of the federal order.

Philip C. Jimeno, a former state senator who lives a quarter-mile from the site, said he was grateful that the county executive had brought attention to the dangers at the plant.

"This place has been a problem for 30 years," he said. "It's just gone from owner to owner, and each time the owners have shown complete disregard for public health and welfare."

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Ruma Kumar contributed to this article.

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