With a multimillion dollar agreement with AlliedSignal Inc. in hand, the state is moving ahead with a plan to tackle the long-time chromium contamination at Dundalk Marine Terminal without intervention from federal environmental authorities.
The deal -- signed quietly months ago between Allied and the Maryland Port Administration -- calls for Allied to reimburse the state roughly $5 million of the $12 million it already has spent repairing damage caused by chromium ore tailings dumped years ago at the state's largest cargo handling facility. In February, Allied paid its first installment of $1 million.
The agreement also calls for the New Jersey company to pay 52.5 percent of implementing and operating a comprehensive cleanup plan over the next five years.
Port officials estimate that cleanup will cost another $16.5 million between now and the year 2001, but they admit the price could rise considerably.
"Nobody knows for sure what the total costs are going to be. There are a lot of unanswered questions," said Linda Jordan, a spokeswoman for the MPA, which operates Dundalk and the state's four other marine terminals.
The 570-acre Dundalk terminal was partly built with three million tons of chromium ore tailings -- the byproduct of chromium processed at Allied's former chrome works plant -- dumped there by Allied from the 1950s through 1970s.
Once thought to be perfect fill material, the tailings ultimately proved to be highly contaminated. Over the years, lime-green, contaminated water has leaked from the terminal's storm drains into the Patapsco River. Workers at the terminal have filed claims alleging hazardous conditions.
In addition, the pavement has buckled repeatedly as the chromium, mixed with water, expands underneath the surface, making some areas unusable.
"There's acreage fenced off because there's too many repairs needed," Ms. Jordan said.
While state officials have long been aware of the problem, little was done until two years ago when limited cleanup efforts began to control storm water runoff and remove some contaminated dirt.
The state, however, bore all the costs as its lawyers concluded that Allied had no liability for the damage since Maryland had willingly purchased the fill dirt.
In November, 1993, however, Maryland approached Allied about sharing cleanup costs. The agreement, signed in January, is the result of nearly a year's negotiations.
"We feel we now have a partnership with Allied," Ms. Jordan said. In a highly complex and evolving area of environmental law, the agreement avoids lengthy litigation. And it also averts the possibility of federal regulatory action.
Maryland has authority to enforce federal laws governing hazardous waste cleanups, but the Environmental Protection Agency can take enforcement action when it deems state action inadequate.
Robert Percival, an environmental law expert at the University of Maryland law school, said the agreement is a "pretty reasonable" one for both parties.
It frees Allied of liability beyond five years should further cleanup or remediation be necessary, he said. "With ground water contamination, you may not know for decades what it's going to take to clean it," he said.
In addition, the company might have been required under federal hazardous waste law to pay the full cost of the cleanup, Mr. Percival said. But he said the deal also may be a fair one for the state because courts recently have been requiring the government to help pay for cleanups when it actively participated in the contamination.