Across from Harbor Point, an unofficial air-monitoring effort

Johns Hopkins School of Public Health researcher Ana Rule checks air monitoring equipment she set up outside the Inn at The Black Olive. The family operating the hotel is concerned about development across the street at Harbor Point and wants to independently monitor chromium levels in the air.
Johns Hopkins School of Public Health researcher Ana Rule checks air monitoring equipment she set up outside the Inn at The Black Olive. The family operating the hotel is concerned about development across the street at Harbor Point and wants to independently monitor chromium levels in the air. (Jamie Smith Hopkins, Baltimore Sun)

Ana Rule stepped onto a balcony outside the Inn at the Black Olive Sunday morning to check the first results of an unusual air-monitoring effort — one intended to make sure official monitoring across the street is accurate.

The hotel in Baltimore's Fells Point overlooks Harbor Point, the planned $1.8 billion mixed-use development on land where a factory once processed chromium. Contaminated soil — capped years ago to keep the toxic chemicals under control — would be temporarily exposed during the early part of the work there.


Environmental regulators gave approval several weeks ago for Harbor Point developer Beatty Development Group to begin collecting air samples in the run-up to construction, and monitoring would continue while work is underway.

But Stelios Spiliadis, who owns the Black Olive restaurant and whose son operates the inn, said he's not comfortable relying on the official effort. That's how air-monitoring equipment ended up on the balcony, set up by Rule, a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health research associate whose expertise is air quality.


"I hope that the developer, knowing that we are going to try to keep him honest, stays honest," Spiliadis said.

Marco Greenberg, vice president for the Baltimore-based Beatty Development, said by email Sunday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment "have conducted rigorous reviews of the air monitoring methodology and procedures to be used at Harbor Point, which will utilize best practices and the latest science."

"The agencies have indicated that their approval of the construction air monitoring plans, which must be obtained before construction can begin, will come this week," he said. "During construction, all air monitoring will be done under the supervision of both EPA and MDE, and they will make frequent visits to the site."

Greenberg said "field work for the baseline monitoring has been completed," and data would be submitted to EPA and MDE this week.

A spokeswoman with the state Department of the Environment could not be reached Sunday.

Harbor Point plans are for office buildings — including energy firm Exelon Corp.'s new regional headquarters — along with stores, residences and a hotel.

Rule began monitoring general pollution levels in the area Friday afternoon and expects to set up equipment specifically to monitor chromium this week. Like the official monitors, hers are gathering baseline information — air quality before Harbor Point construction begins.

She can analyze the filters collecting general information on pollution levels, but the chromium samples will be sent to Rutgers University in New Jersey, another state with headaches associated with former chromium plants.

The Rutgers work will cost $150 a sample. Rule said she hopes to take two or three a week and continue until work involving Harbor Point's contaminated soil is finished, but that's still to be determined.

Spiliadis, who anticipates total expenses of around $5,000 or $6,000, agreed to take responsibility. He said he plans to hold fundraisers at his restaurant to defray the cost — he pointed out with a sardonic grin that none of the roughly $400 million in public subsidies for Harbor Point are coming his way.

Rule has monitored air in Turners Station, a Baltimore County neighborhood concerned about pollution. She got involved in the monitoring at the Black Olive after Spiliadis shared his concerns with Johns Hopkins staffers.

They sat in the Black Olive inn's cafe Sunday morning, Spiliadis listening as Rule explained why it's "very hard" to accurately measure chromium in the air.


It comes in two common forms: trivalent chromium, an essential trace element, and hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing form. The dangerous form was used in the processing plant, but it can show up as its cousin on air monitors thanks to reactions with acids in the atmosphere, Rule said.

Unfortunately, "when you breathe it, it's the way that it is in the air — which is hexavalent," she said.

"So you see why I'm scared?" Spiliadis put in.

Rule said Rutgers adds steps to the EPA's chromium-measurement method "to make extra sure that the final results are what was in the air."

"We don't want to be alarmist or anything, but we want to make sure we do the right thing and we are sampling with the best possible technology," Rule said.

She then checked on the equipment, pulling out filters full of particulate matter collected since about 5 p.m. Friday. She can analyze those herself for overall pollution levels and total chromium, but not whether that chromium is hexavalent or trivalent.

She picked up one filter to show just how dirty it got in less than 48 hours. That's a baseline — the Fells Point air as it is before construction kicks off.

Spiliadis said the Black Olive inn was constructed with air quality in mind, including no paint on the walls so guests would not breathe in fumes. He said he was thinking of customers when he decided to monitor whether Harbor Point changes the air.

It might all turn out fine, Rule told Spiliadis. In that case, the monitoring would simply confirm the official readings.

"Then I would be able to sleep well," Spiliadis said.


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