Chromium taints groundwater beyond Harbor Point

Officials say there's no health risk, but scientists urge closer scrutiny

(Rendering by BHC Architects )
October 12, 2013|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

Even as some Fells Point residents worry that building over a capped toxic site at Harbor Point could endanger their health, records show elevated levels of cancer-causing chromium in groundwater just beyond the area targeted for an upscale development.

Some experts have expressed concern about the pollution — especially in light of a developer's plan to disturb the protective cap over land that once held a chromium processing plant. They're also worried that uncontrolled chromium in groundwater beyond Harbor Point could seep into the harbor or pose risks for development of neighboring properties.

Beatty Development Group plans to temporarily expose contaminated soil while driving pilings for a 22-story office tower to be occupied by Exelon Corp. — the beginnings of a billion-dollar waterfront development between Harbor East and Fells Point.

But groundbreaking has been delayed as the developer, area residents and government officials wait to meet to discuss environmental safeguards.

Edward C. Bouwer, professor and chair of environmental engineering at the Johns Hopkins University, considers recent chromium levels alarming in some off-site monitoring wells, including one at the Living Classrooms Foundation campus just north of Harbor Point. Those levels raise questions about whether measures meant to contain the pollution are working, said Bouwer, an expert on groundwater contamination.

"If those levels were found in the harbor, we'd be shutting it down," he said.

Other records indicate that chromium particles are in the air downtown. Levels detected at Harbor Point and as far away as the Inner Harbor are generally minute, though some are high enough to trigger regulatory action because they would slightly increase a long-term resident's chances of getting lung cancer. State officials say that Harbor Point is not a likely source of the airborne chromium but further investigation is needed to determine its origins.

City Councilman James B. Kraft, whose Southeast Baltimore district includes Harbor Point, said more information is needed about the chromium. He said he wants answers, including details about the history of contaminated groundwater beneath the Living Classrooms campus, before he'll be comfortable with developing the Exelon building.

"We need to know where the levels have increased, why they're increasing. Even if the increase is minuscule, we need to know why," Kraft said. The contamination outside the containment area might have no impact on Harbor Point's development, he said, but "we need to ... have that answer before we start development."

State and federal regulators defend their oversight of contamination beneath Harbor Point and surrounding land, saying there is no evidence that the public or the environment is at risk.

The officials say the tainted groundwater — detailed in reports to regulators that were posted online after The Baltimore Sun requested to review them — is not coming from Harbor Point. They describe it as "historic" contamination that spread before the site of the former Allied Signal chromium plant was capped, and say it is no threat to public health because no one drinks from wells in Baltimore.

Contamination left behind by the factory, which ceased operations in 1985, has been contained, the officials say, by a 5-foot-thick covering of clean soil, plastic and gravel, and by an underground wall around the peninsula. They note that sampling over the years has not picked up evidence of chromium leaking into the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River.

Edward M. Dexter, an administrator with the Maryland Department of the Environment, said he thinks regulators decades ago were focused on capturing the worst contamination at the plant site and saw no need to remove "every single molecule of chromium."

"The fact there's some chromium in the groundwater there doesn't imply some threat," he added.

Groundwater readings are sent to the MDE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Officials at both agencies say they have been monitoring the readings and see no cause for concern. They have given preliminary approval to Beatty's plan for constructing the building, which could include apartments as well as offices.

Still, state and federal regulators say the remediation of the factory site occurred so long ago that they're not sure what their predecessors knew about the contamination beneath the Living Classrooms campus. Neither have they offered any explanation for why chromium levels in groundwater 30 feet below the surface there have been trending upward.

Living Classrooms President James Piper Bond, whose nonprofit foundation leases the property from the city and until this fall has operated charter middle school on its Caroline Street campus, said he is confident that regulators will ensure that the public is not exposed to chromium. But he expressed concern about how the public might react to reports of contamination beyond Harbor Point.

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