Stelios Spiliadis

Stelios Spiliadis, owner of the Inn at The Black Olive, talks about his concern about the proposed Harbor Point development, directly across from his hotel and restaurant. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / August 29, 2013)

While the Harbor Point project's millions in public financing have dominated debate in Baltimore this summer, a carcinogen buried beneath the proposed waterfront development has sparked concerns about the safety of neighboring residents and the people who will work at the site in Fells Point.

Environmental regulators who oversaw the cleanup of the former chromium plant there 20 years ago have given preliminary approval to build a 22-story tower on the 27-acre peninsula on the Inner Harbor. The soil and groundwater there are riddled with toxic chromium entombed beneath a "cap" of clean soil, plastic, clay and gravel up to 5 feet thick, according to government records.

Workers will have to create a series of temporary openings in the cap to drive more than 1,000 pilings deep into the ground to support the building. They will dig through the clean dirt on top and peel back the plastic liner to expose contaminated soil beneath.

The developers and regulators say the work can be done safely. Precautions are being taken to ensure that none of the toxic compounds escape, they say, noting that similar sites such as that of the nearby Morgan Stanley building in Fells Point and elsewhere in Baltimore have been developed without incident.

"It's not like we're breaking new ground here," said Robert Greaves, an official in the Environmental Protection Agency's Mid-Atlantic regional office, which oversees the site. "We have done it on the same property. The process has been shown to work."

But some neighbors and others have expressed reservations about the Harbor Point project. And officials acknowledge that the Morgan Stanley building site is less contaminated than the proposed site of the Exelon Corp. regional headquarters.

"It's a little too much to ask of those of us who live around here," said Stelios Spiliadis, a Fells Point restaurateur and developer of an inn situated across South Caroline Street from the site. "What if they make mistakes? What if it doesn't work the way they say it's going to work? Why should the Fells Point community be a guinea pig?"

Experts say it is understandable that the public would have questions, given what's known about chromium.

"It's nasty," said Thomas Burke, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health. He dealt with chromium as an environmental and health official years ago in New Jersey, which also had chrome plants and residential communities built atop toxic slag from the facilities.

Chromium can take different forms, with very different health consequences. In one form, it is an essential nutrient. Another form — widely used for chrome-plating metals, making dyes and pigments, tanning leather and preserving wood — is toxic. The "hexavalent chromium" lingering at Harbor Point resulted from spills and fallout from processing ore there from the 1840s to the mid-1980s.

Chronic exposure can damage the respiratory tract and other organs and produce skin rashes. Studies indicate that chromium can cause cancer if inhaled, and the EPA has proposed classifying it as a likely carcinogen if consumed in drinking water.

Neighbors around two decades ago recall workers in protective suits laboring to demolish the old Baltimore Chrome Works, where hexavalent chromium tainted the soil, dissolved in the groundwater and was seeping into the harbor.

The plant's owner, Allied-Signal Inc., signed a consent decree in 1989 that required the company to remove all of the buildings and cap the site to shield people from exposure to toxic dust. Allied had to armor the shoreline against erosion and install a "slurry wall" of clay and clean soil down to bedrock around the perimeter to keep tainted groundwater from reaching the Patapsco River.

It took a decade and $100 million to accomplish. Honeywell, which inherited Allied's assets and environmental liabilities, has continued to monitor the site and pump and treat groundwater to keep it from seeping into the river.

The consent decree provided for the possibility of redeveloping the site. But at the time, many experts — Burke included — doubted that anything substantial could ever be built there.

Since then, offices, shopping centers and homes have been built in Maryland and elsewhere on "brownfields," as former industrial sites are called. Even onetime toxic waste dumps cleaned up under the federal Superfund program have been redeveloped, EPA and Honeywell representatives say. Some projects involved driving pilings through caps covering hazardous wastes.

Environmental activists say they support the redevelopment of contaminated properties once they have been cleaned up, but caution that building on land that still contains materials such as chromium is not to be taken lightly.

"Any time there are plans to develop facilities where people will live and work on land once contaminated with a known human carcinogen, folks in the community should be concerned — and that goes for those who live near this site in Baltimore," said Alex Formuzis, spokesman for the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based advocacy organization. "Hexavalent chromium is a notorious cancer-causing chemical that has left many communities around the country, most notably Hinkley, Calif., with serious and long-term health problems as a result of being exposed to the substance."

In Hinkley, an uncapped site featured in the 2000 film "Erin Brockovich," residents sued and won a $300 million settlement for the chromium-laced waste dumped in the ground around their homes. Despite a $700 million cleanup so far, contaminated groundwater continues to spread and as many as one-third of the residents are being bought out.

Representatives of the Harbor Point developer say the Exelon building will be constructed with great care, with close oversight not only from federal and state regulators, but from Honeywell, which remains liable if any contaminants escape.