Developing the Harbor Point site between Fells Point and Harbor East will require temporary openings in a cap holding in toxic hexavalent chromium compounds from the former Baltimore Chrome Works, which processed chrome for coloring paints, tanning leather, protecting engine parts and other uses for 140 years. Developers and regulators say the work can be done safely, but some neighbors and others worry about toxins escaping. Chronic exposure to hexavalent chromium can damage organs and produce skin rashes. Inhalation or ingestion causes cancer.
The Baltimore harborfront — the same company that inherited responsibility for the pollution at Harbor Point is, after years of haggling, working with the state to cleanup chromium at Dundalk Marine Terminal — is far from the only area dealing with this particular industrial legacy. From the lingering battles from the case made famous by the film “Erin Brockovich” to an ambitious waterfront development planned on a reclaimed site even larger than Harbor Point, hexavalent chromium left behind by business and government promises to shape communities well into the 21st century.
After ‘Erin Brockovich’
Hinkley, Calif. Tribune Newspapers Photo
Thanks to the the 2000 film "Erin Brockovich," groundwater contamination in Hinkley, Calif., is probably the nation’s best-known case of hexavalent chromium pollution. Hinkley residents, who claimed that chromium applied to gas pumping plant pipes to prevent corrosion gave them cancer and other illnesses after it seeped into — and lingered in — the drinking supply, received a $333-million settlement from Pacific Gas & Electric in 1996.
An investigation published last spring by The Center for Public Integrity goes beyond the apparent Hollywood ending. It details the ongoing push to limit the amount of hexavalent chromium allowed in drinking water — Califronia public health officials proposed the country’s first such standardsin August — and the industry’s push back.
The use of science to delay regulation is part of a familiar pattern in the field of environmental science. Industry pays for research to address “data gaps.” Even when animals or people are believed to be getting cancer from exposure, industry scientists argue that the chemical in question is dangerous only at extremely high doses. Finally, they argue that you can’t determine a safe dose of a chemical unless you understand precisely how it causes cancer. Until all the questions are answered, they say, it’s not fair to ask industry to bear the cost of stricter rules.
» Read more from The Center for Public Integrity
From defendant to developer
Jersey City, N.J. Baltimore Sun Photo
The chromium contamination from the former plant at Baltimore’s Harbor Point development site was capped instead of removed in part because of "technical difficulties associated with excavation of a site surrounded by water,” a spokeswoman for the plant owner’s corporate descendant, Honeywell, said in an Aug. 31 Baltimore Sun article. At the site of a similar, but even larger project that Honeywell is co-developing on the Hackensack River with Jersey City, N.J., contaminated soil is to be removed from parcels where residential structures are planned and capped in areas designated for open space or parks, the Hudson Reporter wrote this summer. Cleanup of waste left by a nearby plant in the late 19th century and early 20th century is being dictated by 2008 settlement with the city.
Whether thousands of residential units, a million square feet of office space and acres of greenspace get built as planned, and, if they do, whether they attract the people and businesses they’re targeting, should be heavily scrutinized, much like Harbor Point, The Wall Street Journal reported last year.
The project's progress will be closely watched—locally as a measure of another Jersey City attempt at revitalization and nationally as a test of Honeywell's ability to make it in the real-estate business under its unusual deal with the city.
"The reality is most industrial companies don't want to be in real-estate business. It's typically not a comfortable fit," said Mary Hashem, an executive vice president at Brownfield Partners, a real-estate development firm that specializes in contaminated sites.
» Read more from The Wall Street Journal
'Trying to relieve their fears'
Garfield, N.J. EPA Photo
Measuring, let alone controlling, hexavalent chromium pollution can be difficult as it moves through earth and water. Officials have encouraged Garfield, N.J., residents to stay out of their basements to avoid exposure to toxic dust they fear could have been created from thousands of pounds of hexavalent chromium that leaked from a factory 30 years ago, The Associated Press reported in March. But officials couldn’t say for sure how far the plume had spread. To find out, researchers planned to ask for residents’ toenail clippings, The AP said.
The nails will be tested for traces of chromium. Because toenails grow slowly, it is possible to see how much chromium has accumulated in the body over the past 18 months or so, said Judith Zelikoff, a professor of environmental medicine at New York University.
"Our major goal is to try to relieve their fears," Zelikoff said. "With the economy, they can't sell their homes. They don't know if they got exposed."
» Read more from The Associated Press
Changing the chemistry
Richland, Wash. Getty Images Photo
If capping or removing hexavalent chromium isn't an option, an alternative is changing it into a nontoxic form. The federal Department of Energy had gotten used to doing that in Washington State near a former reactor used in the nation's nuclear weapons program. But it was capturing the pollution first, and there was no way it could capture it all before it sunk into groundwater. In 2007, the department turned to a novel strategy of pumping molasses — enough to make 88,000 batches of cookies — into the ground, the Tri-City Herald reported at the time.
The theory is that adding a rich food supply for microbes should change the groundwater chemistry enough to convert some of the toxic chromium moving toward the Columbia River into a nontoxic form.
"It's very cool that you can have high technology using a very common, inexpensive material," John Price, manager for environmental restoration for the state Department of Ecology, said recently as a solution of molasses and water was pumped into the ground.
» Read more from the Tri-City Herald