The dust is flying over Maryland's latest effort to regulate the "recycling" of dirt that has been contaminated by leaking underground fuel tanks.
Homeowners who have been fighting new soil-reclamation plants in places such as Baltimore and Kent counties say rules proposed recently for treating oil- and gas-soaked dirt are a good first step. But they say the proposal by the state Department of the Environment doesn't go far enough in protecting their neighborhoods from possible toxic pollution.
However, proponents of soil treatment complain that the regulations will bury the budding industry in red tape and costs. They also warn that the state's crackdown may backfire, delaying removal of leaking fuel tanks and filling up precious landfill space with fuel-tainted dirt that may one day contaminate ground water.
"They've gone from the point of no regulation to too tough, without stopping in the middle," said George Goodhues, vice president of Soil Recycling Technologies Inc. The firm, based in Hunt Valley, treats contaminated dirt for Miller Asphalt in Finksburg so it can be used in making pavement.
At issue are rules proposed last month that would require new state permits for businesses that treat soil containing petroleum products. The state wants all soil to be tested for contaminants before it can be accepted for treatment, and the dirt would have to be stored under shelter to prevent rainfall from washing contaminants into nearby streams.
The regulations represent an effort by the state to deal with the angry public opposition such plants have generated. About 600 shouting, sign-waving residents of Rosedale in eastern Baltimore County packed a hearing last summer to oppose one in their neighborhood, and others have drawn similar flak from residents concerned about the tainted dirt being stockpiled and treated near them.
There are five soil-treatment businesses now operating in Maryland, including the one in Finksburg and another in East Baltimore. Another five plants are planned, most of which propose to burn or bake dirt at high temperatures to remove the petroleum products and then use it in making asphalt, bricks or cement.
Some existing soil-treatment plants would have to change their operations. Soil Safe Inc., for instance, would be required to reduce and put a roof over the huge mound of earth it has stockpiled in East Baltimore, according to state officials.
The soil-treatment industry has grown in response to a federal law requiring replacement of leak-prone underground fuel tanks by 1998. Maryland is ahead of much of the rest of the country in complying with the requirement, state officials say, and more than 3,000 tanks are being dug up in the state annually, most of them under gasoline stations.
About one in every 10 tanks has sprung leaks before being
unearthed. In each case, from 10 to 40 tons of fuel-soaked dirt must be excavated and hauled away for treatment, said Richard Collins, the state's hazardous and solid waste administrator.
Until recently, most oil-contaminated soil was trucked to landfills. But with local officials trying to conserve dwindling landfill space for household garbage, interest has grown in recycling the tainted dirt.
However, residents of suburban and rural neighborhoods have objected to having soil treatment plants in their back yards. They complain that the air and ground water may become polluted with toxic chemicals such as benzene or lead that may be in the soil. They also are upset that much of the soil being treated is trucked in from out of state.
Benzene, an additive to gasoline, causes cancer if inhaled. Lead, which can cause brain damage and learning difficulties in children, was once widely used in gas, and traces may still be found in soil around tanks that have been slowly leaking for a decade or more.
The state already regulates air emissions from soil-treatment plants, but officials say the new rules are intended to better guard against contamination of streams and ground water.
"I haven't had any pollution problems to date," Mr. Collins said, "but there's a risk there that I'm not willing to accept."
Violations of the new rules could be punished by administrative fines of up to $500 a day, or court-imposed civil penalties of up to $10,000 a day, he said.
The state has proposed the soil-treatment regulations for imposition on an emergency basis, so they can be applied as soon as possible to all existing and proposed plants. A hearing is scheduled Oct. 13 before the General Assembly's committee that reviews new rules.
But neither community groups nor industry seem ready to embrace the state's move.
"It's a big step forward, but it doesn't go quite far enough," said G. Macy Nelson, a lawyer for a group of Rosedale residents fighting a plant proposed by Environmental Recycling Associates, a subsidiary of a Towson pavement manufacturer.
Although the rules would require analyzing every 5 tons' worth of tainted dirt, Mr. Nelson contends that the state should mandate even more frequent testing.
Meanwhile, plant operators say the state's proposed testing requirements are unnecessarily stringent and could send the cost of soil treatment soaring.
The state estimated that these rules could cost anywhere from $56 to $500 per ton to test soil, depending on whether it was tested when it was excavated.
That could boost the cost of removing fuel tanks by more than $26,000 each, according to Richard E. Schauber Sr., president of Chestertown Brick, who wrote a letter opposing the rules.
At the current rate of tank removal, the rules could increase the cost of dealing with tainted soil by $78.4 million a year, he predicted.
That worries local officials, who are trying to conserve landfill space.
"I know the state's in a pickle to address the underground storage tank problem," said Charles D. "Chip" MacLeod, Kent County administrator, "but what are they going to do with the soil?" He contended that the state's move "violates the spirit of the recycling effort" in Maryland.
Not everyone is upset. John Cyphers, president of ERA, which wants to build the Rosedale plant, said the rules should give all soil treatment businesses in the state "a level playing field."
If legislators block immediate imposition of the rules, it could take up to nine months more to get them on the books.
But citizen groups are likely to press the state to stop issuing permits for any more soil facilities until the rules are in force.
"It's like the cart before the horse," said Mary Roe Walkup, president of Kent Conservation Inc., which is fighting the Chestertown plant.
"The program of digging up these tanks got ahead of the technology for dealing with the soils."