Decades after first discovering the problem, state officials have settled on a $27 million plan to keep a cancer-causing chemical in the ground at the Dundalk Marine Terminal from seeping into the Patapsco River and blowing into nearby residential areas.
Under the plan, Honeywell International Inc. and the Maryland Port Administration jointly pledged to re-line leaky storm drains beneath the state-owned shipping facility, which have run yellow at times with chromium-tainted water. They also vowed to see that pavement covering the contaminated soil remains intact so it can't become airborne.
The New Jersey-based company and port officials are scheduled to meet Tuesday with Dundalk area neighborhood leaders to show them the work already under way and explain the plan, which was approved recently by the Maryland Department of the Environment. It ends years of studying and haggling over how best to deal with the toxic contamination, and who should pay.
"There's going to be engineering challenges, but we're going to be monitoring the situation so nothing's going to be escaping into the air or water,'' said Horacio Tablada, the department's director of land management.
As the corporate heir of the business that dumped the tainted dirt there, Honeywell will pay 77 percent of the project's costs, while the port will pick up the remainder. The state shares responsibility for the remediation, according to M. Kathleen Broadwater, the port agency's deputy executive director, because the port agreed to use the wastes from a chromium ore processing plant that operated in the Inner Harbor until the 1980s as fill dirt for the terminal.
The ore wastes, dumped over a quarter of the 580-acre terminal site, were laced with hexavalent chromium, a known human carcinogen. In the decades until the 1970s when the dirt was being dumped there and elsewhere, it "was actually considered to be good fill," said John J. Morris, Honeywell's remediation director.
Honeywell assumed liability for the contamination when it acquired Allied Chemical, the final owner of the ore processing plant that had operated on the harbor for more than 140 years. More than $100 million has been spent to clean up and contain tainted soil and ground water on that 27-acre waterfront tract, which now is proposed for redevelopment as hotels, stores, condos and offices, including a new headquarters for the renewable energy division of Exelon.
At Dundalk Marine Terminal, Honeywell and the port already have spent about $85 million on studies and interim pollution controls, Morris said. About 20 acres of the vast parking lot have been resurfaced to fix spots where the tainted soil has heaved up and buckled pavement. A treatment plant also has been built, which filters chromium from about 42 million gallons of storm-water collected annually out of two of the terminal's storm drains. The tainted sludge is hauled to an out-of-state hazardous-waste landfill.
State regulators had negotiated a consent decree in 2006 requiring the two parties to nail down the extent of the contamination and determine a final remedy. They settled on leaving the tainted dirt in place with some additional containment measures, rather than digging it up and hauling it away for treatment or disposal elsewhere.
A complete excavation would take up to 17 years and cost about $1.4 billion, according to Morris, but expense was not the main reason it was decided to leave the tainted dirt where it is. Digging it up and moving it increases the risks some might get into the air or water.
Removing it also would require closing off portions of the terminal, disrupting business at one of the region's vital economic engines. Port officials and the businesses that load and unload containerized cargo and vehicles at Dundalk feared the cleanup work would idle some of the 2,400 people who work there.
Besides, Morris said, studies and more than 5,000 air, water and soil samples indicated that the only hexavalent chromium escaping from the terminal these days was leaking out in the storm drains. What does escape into the Patapsco converts naturally to a nontoxic form because of the river's chemical composition, so there's little hazard of it spreading.
But, if that leakage could be stopped, Morris added, and precautions taken to maintain the pavement cap on the tainted dirt, then there'd be no risks of exposure to port workers and to surrounding residents.
"It's just as protective," MDE's Tablada said of the containment plan, "but without the extra risk as long as you monitor for the long term."
Re-lining the storm drains is tricky, because workers must dig through the contaminated soil and block off water from the pipe while inspecting it for cracks and blockages. The contractors wear Tyvek suits to avoid skin contact with any contaminated soil, and the air around the work site is monitored, explained Barbara McMahon, safety manage for the port administration.
Air around the terminal and drinking water lines that run through the contaminated ground also are monitored regularly.
The community group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD, had petitioned the Baltimore County Circuit Court six years ago in an attempt to force Honeywell to do a complete cleanup of chromium contamination at the Dundalk terminal and at several other sites around the area. But the court left it up to the port, the company and state environmental regulators to work out the best option for protecting the public while also minimizing disruption of port operations.
"BUILD worked hard for a permanent cleanup; the court decided otherwise," said Rob English, the group's lead organizer, last week. "Containment is a temporary fix, and BUILD is concerned about the long-term health and safety of the workers, the community and the Chesapeake Bay and Inner Harbor."
Honeywell's Morris said the parties plan to drill more wells around the terminal to monitor ground water for contamination, and would continue to check up on and fix any breaks in the pavement "for as long as we need to do it." The pipe re-lining could take five to 10 years, he added.
MDE's Tablada said state regulators would require more remediation work if any evidence turned up that chromium was getting into the environment.
Neighborhood leaders seem satisfied with the plan, though they have insisted on being allowed to monitor the work themselves as it goes forward.
"This seems to be the most sensible option,'' said Larry Bannerman, a longtime resident of Turner Station, a predominantly African-American community in Dundalk that is nearest the terminal. The 59-year-old retired technician for Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. is a member of the community's "conservation team," which will keep tabs on the project.
While excavating all the tainted dirt might eliminate the threat of contamination, Bannerman said he was persuaded that "taking it out and exposing all that material and hauling it across Baltimore in dump trucks would be more risky than leaving it in place and lining it."