Plans to incinerate tainted soil fuel residents' anger

William Keith Davis lives in the low-lying pine lands of the Eastern Shore, away from heavy industry and away from suburbia. So he wasn't pleased, to say the least, when a Minnesota firm decided it wanted to build an incinerator a mile away to burn soil contaminated with petroleum.

"I have young children. I am concerned about the dust that will be generated by this facility and how it will affect my family," Mr. Davis said.


The soil that would be shipped in to the Clean Soils facility could contain some amounts of metals like lead, which in large enough doses can cause serious developmental problems in children.

Mr. Davis and his family are among a dozen families who have organized to stop Clean Soils from building an incinerator near Westover, south of Princess Anne in Somerset County. He also is one of hundreds of people with a growing concern about proposals to build soil-burning incinerators in several parts of Maryland.


From back yards in the mountains near Cumberland to the middle-class row houses of Rosedale in Baltimore County to the pine forests of Somerset, residents say they are worried about the lack of stringent controls on contaminated soil -- about half of that to be imported from out of state.

Maryland environmental officials are now deciding on three separate proposals to build incinerators. Those facilities would be in addition to an incinerator already operating in Finksburg in Carroll County and a second, Kary Asphalt in Fruitland, which was shut down in August when it violated environmental regulations.

Environmental officials say that if they are operated properly, the incinerators should cause neither health nor environmental problems. They are burning off petroleum -- gasoline, aviation fuel, kerosene or diesel -- the same products burned in cars and homes by the millions of gallons each year, said Robert Perciasepe, Maryland Department of the Environment secretary.

The sudden interest in building these facilities comes as the nation starts to grapple with the problem of how to handle ground contaminated with gasoline.

Maryland alone has 769 leaking underground fuel storage tanks that have tainted the soil around them. And across the nation, 60,000 leaking tanks are found each year. Often, they are corroded tanks under gasoline stations.

By federal law, all of these underground tanks must be replaced by 1998 with fiberglass or coated-steel tanks that won't leak. As the old tanks are pulled out of the ground, state environmental officials test the soil under each one, Mr. Perciasepe said, and if it is contaminated, it must be treated.

Seeing an opportunity, a number of small companies have sprouted to treat the soil so it can be used as fill dirt in hundreds of ways, including capping off landfills.

"It is the only and best way we have of treating" petroleum-contaminated soil, said Donald Oberacker, a senior mechanical engineer in the Environmental Protection Agency's Research and Development office in Cincinnati. But, he cautioned, the soil should be carefully tested to ensure that it is not contaminated with other chemicals.


But residents are concerned that the testing will be inadequate, that their water will be contaminated if the soil isn't stored properly before it is burned and that the plant emissions will pollute their air.

They are also angry because the EPA has temporarily exempted soil contaminated with petroleum from the rigorous laws that govern hazardous waste. So a bucket full of soil contaminated with lead above a certain level would be hazardous waste if it came from a toxic waste dump. But that definition would not apply if the soil came from near a leaking underground storage tank, said Jack Schermerhorn, who lives less than two miles from the proposed Clean Soils site in Somerset County.

"We are worried that this dirt is going to get on the ground and in the water and we will end up paying for it for years," Mr. Schermerhorn said.

"While [Mr. Schermerhorn's] scenario would be theoretically accurate, my impression is that it would be very unlikely that you would find lead at levels above federal limits for hazardous waste," said John Heffelfinger, in the EPA's office of underground storage tanks.

Hundreds of tests in New Jersey and Texas, he said, have showed that lead rarely exceeds safe levels.

However, the EPA has been sued by both environmentalists and companies that clean up hazardous waste for the exemption. By the end of the year, the EPA expects a ruling that will decide the issue of how the petroleum-contaminated soil should be handled.


State environmental officials say they have regulations that will ensure public health. The soil must be tested for metals and petroleum products before it goes to an incinerator, and the state's air-pollution standards will ensure that highly toxic chemicals normally found in gasoline, such as benzene, will be emitted in only tiny amounts.

Clean Soils, for instance, expects its emissions of metals such as arsenic, cadmium and chromium and chemicals such as benzene will be hundreds of times below state standards.

But environmentalists and residents are still skeptical that all the regulations will be followed by these companies, many of which are new to the field.

Mr. Schermerhorn worries that the state, with its limited number of inspectors, will rarely send anyone to faraway Somerset County to do surprise tests.

And, he says he fears that the poorest areas with the least stringent zoning regulations will be the targets for incinerators. "They go where the political pressure is least," he said. "They put them where the people aren't sophisticated enough to know they don't want it." Allegany and Somerset counties are two of the poorest areas of the state.