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Toxic waste in Severn wells investigated

Groundwater contamination missed in factory cleanup

By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

10:57 PM EDT, April 30, 2013

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Groundwater contamination from toxic waste dumped decades ago at a nearby factory in the Severn area has prompted widespread testing of residential wells and put eight homes on bottled water, state officials said.

The eight households have been notified that they have unsafe levels of industrial solvents in their wells, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment, and two other homes have been found to have levels below those deemed to pose health risks.

State officials said they are anxious to complete testing for the chemicals — including possible carcinogens — at dozens of other homes that had yet to respond to requests to check their wells.

"We don't know how long it's been in the wells," James R. Carroll, manager of the state's land restoration program, said of the contamination.

State officials say the source of the contamination is an idled factory three-quarters of a mile away in Hanover, where high levels of the solvents have been found moving underground in the direction of the neighborhood. From the late 1960s until recently, the plant fashioned metal components for electric power transmission lines.

The land has had several owners but now is occupied by Kop-Flex Inc., a subsidiary of Emerson Electric Co., a multinational manufacturer based in St. Louis. The company is supplying bottled water to the eight homes.

Emerson said in a statement that the company is still investigating whether it is responsible for the groundwater contamination.

"If the investigation results demonstrate that the Kop-Flex site is the source of the contamination, Emerson will offer to connect their homes to public water supplies, if available," the company said.

Chris Nidel, a lawyer who said he represents occupants of four of the homes on bottled water, criticized the pace of the state's investigation and the treatment of his clients and others in the neighborhood. After the first off-site well found contamination last year, he said, "it was months before they came back in the neighborhood and started testing wells and told residents in January that they were drinking poison."

Nidel questioned why the company and state regulators are limiting the extension of public water to the eight homes with unsafe wells and not talking about cleaning up the contaminated groundwater.

Long-term exposure to the three chemicals found in the greatest concentrations in the residential wells can cause liver, kidney, lung or nervous system damage, according to a fact sheet prepared by the Department of the Environment.

One of the three, dioxane, is deemed likely to cause cancer, while another, 1,1-Dichloroethene, or DCE, is considered a possible carcinogen. Levels of DCE in the eight homes are up to 32 times the threshold considered safe by federal health authorities.

Residents say they are worried and upset — and still have many questions.

"I've been drinking the water for 50 years," said Phillip Hinkle, 51, who said he grew up and raised his children in three of the homes identified with contaminated wells. "I've been in three of those chemical holes all my life."

Jack Hinkle, his 64-year-old brother, said he has lived in one of the houses with a contaminated well since 1981. He said he's more concerned about his two grandchildren than himself. Though the household now uses bottled water for drinking and cooking, he said they are still bathing and showering in the tainted water and he worries that they might be inhaling toxic chemicals.

Health officials "said taking a bath or shower, as long as it was fast, wasn't real harmful," he said. "You try to get a kid to take a fast shower."

Authorities have known about contamination at the Kop-Flex plant for decades, but did not realize that it was fouling the Severn wells until about four months ago.

Seven of the contaminated wells are on Twin Oaks Road and one on Old Camp Meade Road. Tests of more than 170 wells in the neighborhood have found no hazardous chemicals.

The 25-acre tract was listed by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1988 as a potential candidate for cleanup under the federal Superfund law.

Sampling in the mid-1990s found contamination in the soil and groundwater that was linked to the use of degreasing solvents and the disposal of industrial wastewater into a drainage field on the property from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s. Elevated levels of seven hazardous chemicals were found at the time.

Emerson bought the plant in 1996, three years after the facility stopped using the primary solvent found in the groundwater, said Robert Amberg, a spokesman for Emerson. Manufacturing continued there using different chemicals, he said, but stopped about a year and a half ago.

The state approved the company's plans for cleaning up the site in 2001 under its "brownfields" redevelopment program, which tries to streamline regulatory requirements so contaminated property can be more quickly reused. The company's plans included excavating soil and installing pumps to treat groundwater.

At the time, Carroll said, officials believed the contamination was limited to soil and groundwater relatively near the surface, and that a layer of clay underground was keeping the chemicals from sinking deeper to other aquifers.

But after several years of pumping and treating and seeing no reduction in the chemicals found in the near-surface groundwater, the MDE official said, the company made new inquiries and found that there also had been a "dry well," a pit used to drain liquid out of wastes, on the property.

Further investigation revealed that the clay layer supposedly shielding deeper aquifers from contamination had holes in it, Carroll said.

Deeper test wells were drilled last year, which found more contamination, and a well sunk last fall showed it had spread beyond the plant's boundaries. Three of the first 15 homes tested on Twin Oaks Road in December were found to be "impacted" by the chemicals and were promptly provided with bottled water.

Carroll said Emerson had exercised due diligence when it bought the plant.

Edward J. Bouwer, a professor of environmental engineering at the Johns Hopkins University, said that a layer of clay sometimes does not prevent contamination from spreading. Clay can be breached, he said.

"You have to look at all aquifers," said Bouwer, whose research specialty includes groundwater contamination. "You can't rely on just one location to do the analysis, especially when you have these multiple layers."

The EPA left oversight of the cleanup to the state, said Roy Seneca, a spokesman for the agency's mid-Atlantic regional office in Philadelphia. Federal regulators did inspect the site in 2010 and consulted with the state on the need for more investigation, he said.

Carroll said the company has been directed to drill other monitoring wells to try to pin down the extent of the underground contamination. The company is not being required to hook up or provide bottled water to homes with relatively little or no contamination in their wells, he said, as their water is deemed safe to drink. The two wells with low levels of contamination will be checked every few months.

"We don't know whether they were higher or not in the past," Carroll said, "and what we will do is continue to track the situation going forward." If new contamination is discovered, he said, those homes would get bottled water as well while authorities work to find alternative water for them.

Matt Diehl, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel Department of Public Works, said the county is working with an engineer for the company to extend a water line to serve the affected homes. He could not say when that would occur. As for other residents in the area who might want to hook up for reassurance, he said they would have to pay the usual hookup fee and other charges, which can run into thousands of dollars.

Jim Swingle lives across Twin Oaks Road from homes with badly contaminated wells, but said he's been told his well was clean when tested, apparently because it wasn't drilled into the deeper aquifer. He still has concerns.

"Now we're sitting on a groundwater contamination that's going to impact the sale of our homes," he said.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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