On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the Sauer Dump a Superfund site, making it a priority for a federally supervised cleanup.
When it will finally get cleaned up, though, remains an open question. An EPA spokesman said more investigation is needed and couldn't say when work might begin to deal with the contaminants lurking in the soil and sediments.
"It's not something that's going to happen overnight," EPA's Roy Seneca said.
The 2.5-acre tract in eastern Baltimore County, named for one of its former owners, joins 18 other toxic-waste sites in Maryland that have been put on EPA's Superfund cleanup list over the years. Many of them are active military bases or former dumps like the Sauer property, which took all manner of wastes before environmental laws in the 1970s prohibited such activities.
Residents, community activists and local officials welcomed the EPA's announcement. Though some cleanup work has been done at the site, it has remained a worry, particularly since the state warns against eating fish caught in Back River because of contamination with the same chemicals found in the old dump.
"It is wonderful that they're going to put it on the list for cleanup," said Tom Darchicourt, who has owned 40 acres of land that abut the western edge of the dump for more than a decade and has been in frequent contact with government officials.
The site, mostly covered by black plastic sheeting, is surrounded by two overgrown chain link fences. The inner fence is marked with signs that read "Danger Unauthorized Personnel Keep Out." There are about a dozen homes on the waterfront that wraps around the site.
The Superfund listing is the latest twist for the dump in a sequence of events that began in 1984. That's when an inspector with the Baltimore County health department visited the filled-in marsh to check its suitability for a prospective developer, according to a chronology provided by the state Department of the Environment. Finding the tract littered with discarded auto parts, hundreds of mostly empty drums and wood and plastic debris, the county ordered an immediate cleanup.
Sampling taken after the initial cleanup found elevated levels of several hazardous chemicals, including PCBs and lead, in the soil, water and sediment. Once widely used in electrical equipment, PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are considered probable human carcinogens, and studies with animals indicate they may cause immune, reproductive and other serious health problems. Lead, once widely used in paint and other products, can cause brain, nerve and other health damage in children who ingest even small amounts.
Officials planned to put the dump on the federal government's Superfund cleanup list decades ago, but backed off after more tests failed to find PCBs in the water. More sampling about 10 years ago found a PCB "hot spot" where the chemical was apparently leaking from a transformer-like object. State officials had the object removed, but still more sampling found PCBs in the ground water and in surface water near the site, suggesting that it was leaking into the river.
The state advises against eating bottom-feeding fish from Back River and the Baltimore harbor area generally because of likely PCB contamination in their flesh.
The state had planned to handle the cleanup but asked for the EPA to take it over after the testing showed contamination worse than previously believed, raising the estimated cost from the "low millions of dollars to potentially tens of millions of dollars," according to MDE spokesman Jay Apperson. "This is more cost than the state can bear."
Russell Donnelly, a local environmental activist, said residents have been pressing for some time for a full cleanup of the contamination, which he recalled a few years ago was estimated at $12 million.
"We still want the same thing," he said. "They're obligated to restore it to the way they first found it — as good as they found it."
Two companies identified by EPA as "responsible parties" for the contamination objected to the EPA's decision to put the site on the Superfund list. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and American Premier Underwriters, the corporate successor to the Penn Central Railroad, did not immediately respond to calls for comment.
The state handed the dump off to the EPA after talks with potential responsible parties failed to reach an agreement to pay for the cleanup, Apperson said.
"Having access to resources when things are so tight these days is a good thing," said Del. John A. Olszewski Jr., D-Baltimore County, whose district includes the area. "I'm hopeful that the designation will allow us to get it cleaned up faster and better."
The remains of a dock stick up from a marshy beach, where gates to enter the dump allowed access off the Back River, a tributary to the Chesapeake Bay. Cormorants perched along pilings near the entrance Tuesday, and a heron fished in the river a few hundred yards west of the site.
While Darchicourt is happy that the dump was listed, he said he has faced his own struggle with the EPA. The government insists on testing his soil to determine if any toxic material has spread from the fenced zone. He hired an attorney to prove that any contamination of his property took place before he purchased it.
"They've been a little heavy-handed," he said.
No one goes onto his land near the dump, he noted, except hunters he's given permission to, and he rarely has seen the river used for fishing. "It's not harming anyone as it is," he concluded.
But for Dee Hicks, cleanup can't come soon enough. She's lived about a mile from the dump for 15 years and is the only neighbor who wrote to the EPA during the public comment period, encouraging them to add the dump to federal priority cleanup list.
"I don't want any children or pets harmed by a dump or its contaminants," she said Tuesday. "I don't want anyone I know to be harmed."