Environmental regulators said Thursday that they gave the final go-ahead for construction of the Harbor Point project, allowing the developer to begin driving pilings next week for a new Exelon Corp. office tower at the former factory site laced with toxic chemicals.
Beatty Development Co. plans to start excavating next week through layers of clean soil, clay and gravel that cover contaminated ground at the one-time chromium processing plant. Pile driving would begin in June and is expected to be finished by this fall.
"The chromium levels should not become an issue, but if they do become an issue, we are prepared to take increasing measures, up to stopping the work,'' said Horacio Tablada, chief of land management for the state environment department.
The ground at the 27-acre site is tainted with high levels of hexavalent chromium, left behind when the processing plant shut down in the 1980s. That form of chromium can cause cancer if inhaled. The contamination has been contained under five feet of clean material, but the developer needs to open up the cap in order to drive more than 1,100 pilings to support the Exelon tower on the harborfront site.
"We will abide by the threshold values established by the agencies, said Marco Greenberg, vice president at Beatty Development.
Rising 20 stories, the $165 million building will be constructed by Armada Hoffler, a Virginia-based real estate investment trust. It is slated to include more than 100 apartments and about 41,000 square feet of commercial space in addition to the Exelon offices.
It is the first part of Beatty's larger development vision for Harbor Point, which includes other office and residential buildings as well as a pedestrian promenade along the harbor.
Beatty had hoped to break ground on the Exelon regional headquarters in mid-October, but in November regulators rejected the developer's plans to protect the public from contamination contained beneath the surface. The developer has been in negotiations with regulators since to resolve the issues. The last hurdle involved setting a limit on how much highly toxic chromium could get into the air from the construction site.
Air samples taken by the developer last year to determine pre-construction chromium levels were rejected by the Environmental Protection Agency, which said flawed measurements resulted in unbelievably high readings. A new round of sampling in March yielded much lower chromium levels.
The chromium dust limit set by regulators is significantly higher than what the developer measured recently. But regulators said they took into account the possibility that chromium levels could be higher in warmer weather, when more dust of all types gets into the air.
The limit is still roughly in line with how much chromium has been detected in the air of other cities, regulators said. According to EPA, someone inhaling hexavalent chromium particles from infancy at the limit set for the project would run a two in a million greater chance of getting cancer over a lifetime. That represents an acceptable risk, according to state and federal officials.
The developer is required to take precautions to keep the chromium in the ground from becoming airborne. Because chromium sampling takes days to get results, general dust levels around the construction site must also be monitored in real time. If those levels exceed thresholds set by regulators, control measures would be required, such as spraying water and erecting "dust curtains." If those failed to reduce dust or chromium levels, regulators said, they were prepared to halt work.
Tablada, the state regulator, said his staff would be at the construction site during key aspects of the project to see that precautions are followed.
Stelios Spiliadis, whose family operates the Inn at the Black Olive across Caroline Street from Harbor Point, said he remains worried about the potential for harm to area residents. Earlier this year, he had a researcher from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health set up air sampling equipment on the inn's balcony to measure chromium levels in the neighborhood air.
Ana Rule, a research associate at Hopkins who specializes in air quality, said she does not have any results back yet from her sampling. She said she has questions about what the normal level of chromium in Baltimore is. But she said the limit set by regulators appeared protective.
"It's not nothing, but it's pretty low," she said.