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News Maryland Baltimore County Catonsville

Hopes for abandoned mill site to become part of Patapsco Valley State Park

Over the past few months, the Simkins Paper Mill on River Road has been reduced to a skeleton of its original, massive structure.

When driving past the 70,000-square-foot mill six months ago, one could see the expansive concrete building — much of which was covered in colorful graffiti — from numerous points along River Road.

As of Monday Sept. 9, however, all that remains are a few ghostly concrete slabs and piles of crushed rock and rubble at the base of the hillside drop off along the road that winds through the woods of Patapsco Valley State Park.

The mill has been closed since a June 2003 fire. The surviving structures were further damaged by another fire in December 2011.

As the mill's demolition nears completion, environmental groups are beginning to speculate on the future of the property on the Patapsco River near the Howard County line.

Ranger Steve McCoy, the acting park manager at Patapsco Valley State Park, said he would be happy to see the property absorbed into the park system.

"Because it's not even in our hands yet, there are no definitive plans," he said. "But certainly we could proceed with some level of parking and safe access to that part of the river.

"If it does become part of DNR's list of properties, then it certainly would become part of Patapsco and that is certainly a rather desirable option for us," McCoy said of a possible addition by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Emily Wilson, director of land acquisition and planning for DNR, said she is working closely with the Connecticut-based owners of the property to reach an agreement that would incorporate the site into the adjacent Patapsco Valley State Park. Tony Battaglia, spokesman for the owners, could not be reached for comment on this article.

"It's something that we're working on and we're hoping to be able to get to mutually agreeable [terms]," Wilson said of DNR's negotiations with Simkins Industries. "We've been keeping in regular contact with them through the cleanup program."

The cleanup program to which she referred is the Maryland Department of the Environment's Voluntary Cleanup Program, which provides benefits to companies, including clarification of liability provisions, in exchange for them cleaning up their properties.

According to a fact sheet from MDE, "A Phase II ESA (Environmental Site Assessment) completed in May 2011 included the collection of soil, groundwater, surface water and soil gas samples from the power plant area, mill building area, landfill area and other parts of the property.

"The samples identified the presence of lead in the soils near the mill building and power plant building and chlorinated solvents in the soil gas near the power plant building," the fact sheet read.

Jay Apperson, a spokesman for MDE, said the decision to demolish both buildings was made by Simkins and the company has submitted a plan for removing the contaminated soil.

"The response action plan was approved," he said. "There's been enough demolition done to allow sampling [of the soil].

"We expect it to be done shortly," Apperson said of the soil sampling. "The results will be reviewed and they will do any excavation necessary."

While the mill property is currently listed for commercial, not recreational, use, if it can pass the soil tests, McCoy sees great potential in it.

He said its acquisition would help tie up or close up a portion of the river for the park.

McCoy said there are still a few privately owned land parcels along the 32 miles of the Patapsco River that flow through the park.

Those properties create "a gap in our ability to protect and preserve the sustainability and the quality of the Patapsco River," he said.

"Any time that any of those private parcels are right on the river, that border the river, any time those come up for sale we look at those very carefully — especially a parcel like this, that's right on the river and adjacent to, and more or less enclosed by, a larger portion of the park," he said.

"Anything and everything that we do there would be done in a responsible way that would continue to enhance and protect the water quality of the Patapsco there," McCoy said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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