Environmental regulators said Wednesday that construction on the Harbor Point project in Baltimore could begin by the end of the month, after they approved a plan to measure air quality at the former factory site laced with toxic chemicals.
Harbor Point developers will begin taking samples Thursday to establish a baseline for air quality near the project, where construction plans call for temporary exposure of contaminated soil.
State and federal regulators still must approve a plan to monitor the air quality while construction is underway. They said they will review the samples before giving the final go-ahead, but, barring unexpected results, expect it to be similar to the plan they approved.
Final approval could come as early as the end of the month, said Horacio Tablada, the Maryland Department of the Environment's director of land management administration.
"It's an important step toward starting the project," said Marco Greenberg, vice president of Beatty Development Group, the company that is developing the site. "It's taken several months, a lot of back and forth, a lot of hard work on the part of our team and certainly on the part of the regulators. It was good to get it done."
A new regional headquarters tower for the energy company Exelon Corp. is to anchor Harbor Point, a proposed $1.8 billion development on a 27-acre waterfront site between Harbor East and Fells Point.
The project has been controversial partly because of an estimated $400 million in public subsidies, including approval for $107 million in city-issued tax increment financing bonds.
"The neighbor, lay person response is that the project is an absolute anathema to the city at a variety of levels. The environmental level is one, and it's a very critical one," said Stelios Spiliadis, owner of the Black Olive Inn & Restaurant.
Spiliadis said he has not seen the new plans for monitoring air quality, but he remains uncomfortable with the project across South Caroline Street from his boutique hotel. He said he will review the document with scientists.
"I do not trust that the process of monitoring is going to be satisfactory and comprehensive in terms of developing the baseline," Spiliadis said.
Beatty had hoped to break ground on the Exelon tower in mid-October, but, in November, regulators rejected the developer's plans to protect the public from the exposure of contaminants left from the site's years as a chromium processing plant.
They also ordered new air-quality tests, saying, for example, that earlier readings from the National Aquarium and Maryland Science Center were unreliable and might have shown "artificially high" levels of cancer-causing hexavalent chromium.
In December, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment approved a plan for environmental safeguards without a final air-quality monitoring plan.
The approval allowed preliminary work to begin, but blocked driving pilings for the tower and exposing the soil, which was capped during site remediation in the 1990s.
"The agencies were extremely diligent, and they did a very detailed review of the plans and we ended up making several fairly significant modifications," Greenberg said.
The changes added less than $1 million in costs, he said.
Under the current agreement, the developer will collect dust samples from the project site, the aquarium and a Baltimore fire station on Hillen Street. The samples will be taken around the clock for 15 days and analyzed by a North Carolina lab.
The agencies also are requiring a more sensitive detection method than previously proposed.
The Maryland Department of the Environment will send staff "fairly frequently" to make sure the data is being collected properly, Tablada said.
"We always reserve the right to change if we see ... something that could be done differently," he said. "We can always improve what we've done."
Edward Bouwer, chairman of the Johns Hopkins University's department of geography and environmental engineering, said he had been concerned that the sampling locations to establish the baseline would be mostly close to the site. He had recommended that scientists collect samples from several miles away to establish air-quality benchmarks.
Bouwer said he had not seen the plan, but "in principle," the Baltimore fire station site might represent a better plan.
"My feeling was, you're not getting a good measure of what background could be," he said. "Maybe this fire station is farther away."
Beatty installed equipment to begin sample collection Wednesday, but an electrical problem delayed the start until Thursday, Greenberg said. Monitoring during construction will focus more exclusively on the site, he said.
Tablada said the goal of the monitoring is to maintain current air-quality levels.
"We have a super-sensitive testing method," he said. "The standard is, the construction should not cause any deviation from what is ambient there right now."