Swann Park reopens, concerns fade

13,000 tons of arsenic-laden soil removed

(Karl Merton Ferron, BALTIMORE…)
May 21, 2010|By Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun

Crews worked around the clock this week unfurling rolls of sod, caulking bathrooms and chalking playing fields in preparation for Saturday's reopening of a South Baltimore park that has been closed for three years because of arsenic contamination.

City and state officials say the 11-acre Swann Park, where toxins were recorded at more than 100 times a safe level, is now fit for ballplayers and families.

"It's pretty much a new park," said city parks department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Burrell.

Swann Park was padlocked in April 2007 after the disclosure of documents from a chemical company provided fresh details about years of contamination on the site, adjacent to an Allied Chemical pesticide factory that billowed waste into the air and neighborhood.

The city reached an agreement with Allied's successor, Honeywell International, to pay $6 million of a $7.2 million project to removed 13,000 tons of contaminated dirt and replace it with a 2-foot layer of clean soil. Allied and Honeywell merged in 1999.

Parents such as David Bare Jr., who has been taking his three children ages 8, 5 and 3 to Federal Hill Park about a mile away, say the project has restored a valuable community resource.

"I'm glad this park is finally opening," said Bare, a 12-year resident of West McComas Street.

A ceremony is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, which includes an appearance by the Oriole Bird, followed by the Yankee Rebels versus the Black Sox in a 15-and-under league, and the Defenders Baseball Club will face the Brooklyn Park Blue Bombers in a 10-and-under game.

The festivities will cap a grim chapter in South Baltimore history.

When the contamination became known, officials and residents asked why the problem went undetected for years. At the time, Honeywell said it did not know why the documents had not been turned over decades earlier.

Then- Mayor Sheila Dixon appointed a special task force, which concluded that Allied deliberately misled city officials about its test results regarding levels of arsenic, a carcinogen, and that the arsenic came from the factory.

The factory produced DDT, kepone and a main ingredient of Agent Orange before closing in 1976, and the task force found that soot and debris from faulty smokestacks covered the park area "like snow."

City and federal health officials concluded that children, coaches and workers who used the park at least 182 days a year might have an increased cancer risk from inhaling dirt particles and touching their mouths after getting their hands dirty.

A later report by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease said the increased risk of cancer among the park's most frequent users might be as much as 2 in 10,000 people; the risk of cancer in the U.S. population as a whole is estimated at 1 in 3, or 3,333 out of 10,000 people.

During the renovation, soil from highly contaminated "hot spots" was removed and taken to landfills in Frostburg, Pennsylvania and Virginia, said Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. He said a protective, moisture-resistant fabric was also added.

The work has made the park safe, and the source of the arsenic is gone, Apperson said.

New fencing, bleachers, dugouts and lights were added, Burrell said.

Residents seemed ready to test the new fields. The new bleachers and paved paths "look way better," Bare said.

But he expressed concern about parking. Bare's street is the only entrance to the park, which is surrounded by water, a concrete plant and Interstate 95, with no other street parking available. The park does not have a parking lot.

"It will get crazy on weekends," Bare said.

But Bare said the changes are an improvement. When the park was closed, drug dealers and prostitutes would visit. "I hope it doesn't get like that again," he said.

Matt Eskridge, secretary of the South Baltimore Community Association, said, "Honeywell really went above and beyond. They did more than they had to do," noting that the old park lacked lights and bathrooms. "The park will get more use than it did before."

Asked about any lingering questions about safety, Eskridge said, "Personally, I have not heard any concerns. Most people seemed pleased. We're excited that it's opened."

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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