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Safety of well unclear


A solvent-contaminated well inside a building the county commissioners are buying is either "a significant threat" or a localized pollution problem that is unlikely to recur -- it all depends on which expert you talk to.

The well is in the former Telemecanique electrical components manufacturing plant on Bethel Road in Reese, which the commissioners have agreed to purchase for $4.2 million. The 25-acre property and the 156,000-square-foot building will be renovated as a headquarters for the county school system.

A consultant hired by the commissioners in 1994 to assess the building advised the county to have the floor drains and part of the plant's septic system checked to find the source of trichloroethene, a cancer-causing solvent that has contaminated an indoor well.

An environmental specialist with Square D Co., a sister company of Telemecanique that has conducted a cleanup of the tainted well for the past 19 months, says that treatment has reduced the contamination. The company told county officials that there might not be any underground source leaking into the well and that it isn't necessary to dig out the floor of the plant.

The commissioners have refused to make public the consultant's report, which was completed in 1994 by EMS Environmental Inc., but a letter in Maryland Department of the Environment files quotes the document as saying that the trichloroethene source "could pose a significant threat."

The public "will have to trust us, I guess," on environmental questions about the Telemecanique building, said Commissioner Donald I. Dell.

"For us to release that [consultant's report] and have a lot of issue about it from people who don't know what they're talking about and getting the public all stirred up -- I don't see the point in that," Mr. Dell said.

Commissioner Richard T. Yates said he doesn't know what the EMS Environmental report says. "I haven't read that report," he said. "There was a situation there [at Telemecanique], but I don't know what it was."

Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown said he hasn't read the report but has been briefed on it. "I can only go on what the appropriate staff has told me, that in their opinion we have nothing to fear," Mr. Brown said.

The commissioners said in separate interviews that they are satisfied the pending sales contract will protect the county from any future liability associated with the well contamination.

Steven D. Powell, the county director of management and budget, is negotiating the contract with Glenn S. Bair, president of Development Co. of America, which owns the former Telemecanique plant.

"I can tell you that we're addressing all the issues during the negotiating process, but as long as the project is under negotiations, all of that [information] is not available," Mr. Powell said.

According to well test reports on file with the state environmental department, trichloroethene levels in the well dropped from 18 to 3.9 parts per billion between March 30, 1993 and April 14, 1994. During that time, Square D Co. pumped out the well, treated the contaminated water and discharged it into the plant's septic system.

Square D representatives say the treatment is working and that no further investigation is necessary.

"It is our professional opinion that no additional sampling or investigation is necessary," Gladys M. Thomas, senior corporate environmental specialist for Square D, said in a letter to Mr. Bair.

Telemecanique supplied bottled water to employees for at least five years before the company left the factory early in 1993. The reason was the taste of the well water, a longtime former employee said.

"People complained that they didn't like the taste of the [well] water," said R. Glenn Zepp, former manager of facilities and safety for Telemecanique. "As far as I know, they did it long before there was any testing for the water."

Telemecanique workers used small amounts of solvents for cleaning parts, said Willard C. Speace, the company's former manufacturing manager. He said he eliminated the practice around 1981.

Former County Commissioner Julia W. Gouge, a member of the board that asked for the environmental assessment in 1994, said she is worried about the purchase.

Mrs. Gouge said her concern was that no private industry bought the building in the two years it was on the market and that there might be a risk of which the county is unaware.

"I hope I'm wrong, but if there's an environmental problem over there, it's going to cost the county millions" of dollars, she said.

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