Neighbor suing Navy over soil contamination

When Rick Baker bought a property next to a Navy Exchange in 2002, he saw the land as a sort of oasis — it was near family and the Severn River, and surrounded by tall trees.

He built a home there, at the end of a gravel road. A decade later, he saw workers on his property and asked what they were doing. They were marking waste that needed to be removed, Baker said.

He told them they were on his property — they said they weren’t, according to Baker.

The interaction was in the same vein as the issue at the heart of a lawsuit filed in February against the federal government.

Baker contends the Department of the Navy dumped waste oil on his property between 1941 and 1969, thinking the land was its own.

The resulting contamination has made the house unsalable, Baker contends in his lawsuit. Even if things were to be cleaned completely, the stigma would remain, according to the firm representing him, Linowes and Blocher LLP. So, Baker is seeking $730,761.86 in damages.

The alleged dumping would have occurred more than 40 years ago. Before he bought the property and built a house, the land was vacant, Baker said, and wouldn’t have looked like anything more than a patch of woods. He contends that the Navy “chucked” waste down the ravine, thinking that the property belonged to them.

A Navy spokesman said it is the department’s policy not to comment on ongoing litigation, and directed questions to the Department of Justice, which also declined to comment.

Baker is 70, moved to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, three years ago and now rents the Annapolis home to a family. He is still working as a manufacturer representative.

“I can’t retire while I have this hanging over my head,” Baker said.

A report published by the Navy in spring 2016 shows that there is contamination on Baker’s property — four samples taken on the property showed levels of TPH oil range organics that are outside of the Maryland Residential Cleanup Standard.

However, the report advised that no action is required. The potential contaminants are limited to the subsurface soil in the center of a ravine that separates Baker’s property and the Navy’s, the report said. A right of way and Woodland Road separate the two properties, the Navy said in a court filing. The ravine is partially in that right of way and partially on Baker’s property.

The contaminants don’t pose a significant risk to human health or the environment, the report said. The Maryland Department of Environment closed its investigation into contamination in the ravine in May 2016 and declared the area in compliance with state regulations, it said in a letter sent to an official at Naval Facilities Engineering Command Washington. However, digging into the area could expose any remaining contaminated soil, the letter states.

Though there’s no immediate risk, the contamination is something he would need to disclose to potential buyers, Baker said.

In its letter, the environment department said the source of petroleum contamination in the ravine is unknown. The ravine is right next to a 38-acre parcel referred to as Site 1, a former landfill and exchange. According to the Navy report, Site 1 has been under investigation since 1988 “to assess potential environmental impacts associated with historical operations, which included metal salvaging, waste disposal (reportedly including wood, metal, cars, paint, oils, solvents, acids and pesticides), and pesticide preparation and storage.”

Another report published by the Navy in August 2015 states historical records show that “300 gallons of waste oil were disposed at an unknown location within Site 1 four times a year between 1941 and 1969” — sampling indicates that most of the dumping occurred in the eastern portion of the site, the report specifies.

A Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act Remedial Action is being conducted for that 38-acre site — it was that action that led to the discovery of petroleum contamination in the ravine, which has been evaluated separately, in late 2013, the Navy’s report states.

At the start of 2014, 600 cubic yards of contaminated soil was removed from the ravine and replaced with three feet of clean soil and plants, the state Department of Environment said in its letter.

Baker said he has been talking with Navy officials for more than five years about the issue, but things still haven’t been totally resolved. The government filed a motion to dismiss the suit, but the motion was denied by U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis in August.

“We are engaged in the discovery process and we remain hopeful that at some point the Navy will consider discussing some sort of a settlement option,” said Baker’s attorney, Ben Wechsler. “However, at this time, we have not had any such opportunity.”

Baker is concerned that no end is in sight. He wants to retire, he said, and the property is a liability.

Baker is also concerned for the future of the property and doesn’t want to burden his son.

“What a terrible inheritance,” he said.

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