Building by building, the old Allied chrome works on Baltimore's waterfront is disappearing, as moon-suited workers carefully dismantle and decontaminate the 147-year-old plant from the inside out.
Now, with the massive six-year cleanup of one of the state's biggest hazardous waste headaches nearing the midway point, the owner of the old plant is jockeying to cash in on its valuable location near the Inner Harbor, once the toxic chrome dust that riddles the ground is buried 7 feet under.
Allied-Signal Inc. recently hired two local development firms to look into building homes, offices, a theater or a park -- or some combination of those -- on the 20-acre peninsula that juts into the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River.
James Rouse's Enterprise Development Co. and Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, two firms heavily involved in development of the Inner Harbor and nearby Canton, have been working since last fall to assess options for the plant after the clean up is finished in 1995, Allied officials say.
If successful, the company's move to redevelop the site may be a first, hazardous waste experts say. Allied intends to rebuild after covering up, rather than actually removing, the chrome contaminating the ground and water under the old plant.
Chrome has been processed at the corner of Block and Wills streets since 1845, when the first chrome chemical manufacturing plant in the United States was built there. Allied bought the plant from Mutual Chemical in 1954 and continued importing chrome ore from overseas and converting it for use in paints, in tanning leather and in making car bumpers. But the plant was shut down in 1985, putting 330 people out of work.
Decades of industrial activity have taken their toll on the site. Studies indicate that about 62 pounds of hexavalent chromium are leaving the site daily in surface runoff and ground water leaking into and under the river. Hexavalent chromium can cause cancer if inhaled and can irritate the skin on contact. It is also toxic to fish and other aquatic life.
Yet Allied officials say they believe the land can be developed safely after the contaminated ground has been blanketed by 7 feet of clay, sand, plastic sheeting and topsoil. The chrome-laced water now seeping through the ground into and under the harbor likewise will be contained by an underground "wall" dug some 80 feet below the surface around the plant's perimeter.
Nothing about this project is small. About 26,000 tons of steel, wood, dirt and rock from dismantled buildings and from piers around the shoreline have been hauled away. Of that, more than 6,000 tons were recycled as scrap metal after being scrubbed of chrome dust and other contaminants. Most of the timber from the piers was made into wood chips for composting with the city's sewage sludge.
About one-third of the total, however, could not be decontaminated and had to be shipped to hazardous waste landfills or treatment plants. Besides chromium, demolition crews also had to take precautions against another contaminant, asbestos, which was used to insulate many of the buildings.
William Blank, senior project manager for Allied-Signal, said the company owes it to its shareholders to try to recoup the mammoth cost of the cleanup. The estimated price tag has grown from $61 million when the project was announced three years ago to $80 million now, and state officials predict it could easily reach $100 million.
"We're looking at the whole spectrum of possibilities," Mr. Blank said. "As of this moment, we haven't come to any conclusions. We're meeting with the community, and financial considerations will come into play as well."
Allied's plans for developing the site must be approved by the Maryland Department of the Environment and by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, acknowledged Jack Turner, the firm's on-site manager of the cleanup project.
EPA officials will say only that they will consider whatever Allied proposes, but state officials say they see no reason why Allied cannot rebuild after the surface cap and ground water containment system are in place.
"Once the site is cleaned up [as required], we're confident it's OK to go ahead and develop, because we believe it will be protective of health and the environment," said Alvin Bowles, hazardous waste program manager for the state Department of the Environment.
However, environmentalists and some hazardous waste experts question whether the site will be suitable for residential or commercial development, as long as significant amounts of toxic metal remain in the ground.
"If I were a buyer, it's certainly not the first place I would want to go," said Linda Greer of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group in Washington, D.C.
Ms. Greer contends that removal of contaminated soil would be best if future residential or commercial development is planned.
"You really need a Cadillac cleanup when you have a Cadillac use in mind," Ms. Greer said.
Hazardous waste experts say there are few, if any, precedents ** for what Allied-Signal is attempting. They disagree on whether it is safe to try to build on contaminated land that has been capped.
"I don't think you'd have too much trouble designing a cap that you can build on top of," contended Robert Moore, an engineer with Dames & Moore in Atlanta, Ga.
But Paul F. Gabriel, technical chairman for the Hazardous Waste Action Coalition, a Washington-based industry group, said that "it's typically pretty difficult to build anything over caps." The weight of a building could crack the clay or soil barrier, he said, making it possible for contamination to work its way to the surface. Penetrating the cap with building foundations also could cause problems, he said.
Engineering questions aside, all agree the project faces major hurdles because of questions about its marketability and about the potential for lawsuits if things go wrong years or even decades down the road.
"There is no proven track record for these caps of hazardous waste sites," said Joel S. Hirschhorn, a consultant to industry on Superfund and other toxic cleanups. "If you ask any honest engineer, they'll tell you that ultimately all containment systems will fail. Things corrode, wear out, weather."
Allied has agreed to be responsible for maintaining the cap to ensure that it is not disturbed. As a precaution, for instance, no trees will be allowed on the site, since the roots might crack the cap and draw contaminated water to the surface.
The company also will monitor the water table under the site and pump contaminated ground water out to make sure it does not leak through the underground barrier. Mr. Turner estimates that up to 2,000 gallons will have to be pumped daily and treated to remove the chrome, which measures up to 14,500 parts per million at some points.
Even if Allied is able to persuade regulators it can develop the site safely, the company still has to overcome resistance and skepticism from city officials and nearby residents.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said several years ago that he would like to see much of the property landscaped for use as a city park or open space -- an idea also recommended by Washington architect George Notter. Use as open space is more typical for hazardous waste sites that have been capped, experts say.
Residents, who have complained about the byproducts of redevelopment in Canton and Fells Point, say they have questions about the safety of building on the site. They also object to any more high-priced housing in the area that may drive them from their working-class neighborhoods.
"We don't want things that are going to make the neighborhood more expensive and more out of reach for people who live here," said Steve Bunker, a Fells Point merchant and civic activist. "We don't want something that is going to be generating more trash, toxins, more debris and dirt."
Mr. Bunker said he understands Allied's wish to recover some of the costs of the cleanup, but he added that "had Allied been a more responsible corporate citizen to begin with, they'd have to spend a whole lot less now."
But even Mr. Bunker admits that the waterfront location makes the site tremendously attractive to developers.
"It's got to be one of the most beautiful sites on the East Coast," said Ted Rouse of Struever.
"A lot of people have compared it to wonderful locations in Sydney, Australia, and elsewhere in the way it sticks out in the harbor.
"We are looking for ways to maximize its potential," he said.