They once knew it as a rural playground, a meadow with cornflowers and willow trees perched above a clear-running stream. Then it became an Eisenhower-era landfill, a stop along Baltimore's trash belt that produced snowfalls of fly ash, where exploding oil drums shot sparks into the night like rockets on the Fourth of July.
Now, four decades later, comes word that the long-closed 68th Street Dump/Industrial Enterprises site in Rosedale might be added to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's list of Superfund cleanup sites. And the Shinnick family, which had demanded action years before environmentalism became a household word, is asking: What took so long?
"Wouldn't it have been nice if this would have happened 30 or 35 years ago?" says Rita Shinnick, who decades ago railed against bureaucrats for permitting the defilement of the fields where her children once played. "Right now, it's quiet."
True, the graveyard-shift clanging of the trucks and the rumble of approaching bulldozers are just bad memories, and the recycling company that leases some of the land is praised as a considerate neighbor. Shinnick and her neighbors in the Greater Chesaco and Maryland Manor communities no longer have to pick flecks of soot from the wash they hang out to dry or breathe air made putrid by smoldering ash.
But environmental officials still aren't sure what health hazards might be posed by chemicals seeping from the site, where oil was dumped by the barrel into pits dug near the banks of bay tributaries.
This much they know: Mercury from the site has been found in the sediment of Herring Run, which feeds Back River and, eventually, the Chesapeake Bay; and toxic substances such as polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCBs, have been detected on the land.
The once-rural blue-collar neighborhoods of eastern Baltimore County have for decades absorbed environmental assaults. Residents there and in nearby East Baltimore have long wondered whether their high cancer rates are linked to the dump sites that form what came to be called a "ring of fire" in the area.
Some seem resigned to the lack of political influence that they say left their area a dumping ground.
"It ain't Dulaney Valley," said Bernard Humphrey, 65, a longtime Greater Chesaco resident, who says he's seen black liquid ooze from stream banks near the Rosedale dump site. "We've had nothing but dumps around here all my life."
A file at the state Department of the Environment contains reports and black-and-white photographs that document practices at the site that today would seem mind-boggling. Acres of wetlands were filled without a thought to the consequences. Men turned over drums of oil into huge pits dug near Herring Run.
Officials say landfill owner Robb Tyler -- who for a time was Baltimore's biggest trash hauler, with the slogan "We never refuse refuse" -- spread uncooled ash from the Pulaski Incinerator onto his dump, starting frequent fires.
In the early days of the dump, Rosedale residents raised a huge fuss. Rita Shinnick, mother of two, would put on her hat and gloves and drive to Towson to give the zoning commissioner an earful.
"Come on back," she told a visitor to her home last week. "I'll show you what we were raising hell about."
With that, she walked past the oak and locust trees on land that's been in her family since 1914, and she came upon a small stream. The rusted remains of a steel drum rose from the bed of Redhouse Run, all that separates her property from the 68th Street dump site.
"They used to have bulldozers pushing trash to the very edge," she said, gesturing toward the far bank. Her husband, William Shinnick, said, "Sometimes when I go back there, that river is coal black. I don't know from what."
More memories: The rats that migrated from the dump; the rotten-egg stench; the soot that floated from a small on-site incinerator to blanket cars and lawns.
"My dad would say, 'Get your sled out, there's going to be a hell of a snow dump this weekend,' " recalled Russ Mirabile, who grew up in Rosedale. He said the ashes fouled his mother's rose garden, adding, "She always used to be mad because she couldn't put her nose in the flowers."
Back then, Rita Shinnick worried about the polluted streams where her children, using a homemade boat, fished and hunted muskrat.
Shinnick's daughter, Ellen Hubbard, recalls childhood days in the early 1950s before the dump came, when she played among those willow trees. Then came the dump, which in the beginning offered a new kind of adventure.
"The treasures we would find!" she said. "Boxes and boxes of stuff. I remember it very distinctly: silver polish, Noxzema. Just jars and jars of Noxzema."
Soon, the filth overcame the fun side. She and her brother noticed a difference in the perch they caught, cleaned and cooked over a fire. The fish, she said, "would smoke so badly because it had just gone through an oil slick."
Sometimes, the family would gather outside for the light show that came when oil barrels blew up. "It was better than the Fourth of July," she said.
The pollution eventually drove the children indoors, depriving them of a part of their childhood, Hubbard said.
"When you're 5 years old and you see your father throw his hands up in the air, and your mother's just come back from Towson, where they wouldn't even give her the courtesy of listening to her, it's frustrating," said Hubbard, 48, a telecommunications analyst. "It was just so sad to see everybody helpless."
In 1984, after reading about the Superfund program, Hubbard wrote a letter to the EPA suggesting the Tyler dump be considered for cleanup. She said she never heard back.
Landfills and their ecological fallout are virtually unmatched for galvanizing citizens to demand fast action. But state officials say cleanups take time for a simple reason: Limited resources must be concentrated on the worst of the several hundred sites they have pinpointed.
"We're still cleaning up Aberdeen Proving Ground, Edgewood Arsenal and Fort Meade," said Arthur O'Connell, chief of the Maryland Department of the Environment's Site Assessment and State Superfund Division. "You go with the most serious first, and you work your way down the list."
But Lois Gibbs, a former housewife from Love Canal, N.Y., who heads the nonprofit Center for Environmental Health and Justice, is impatient with officials who defend delays in cleaning up health hazards.
'No excuse' for delays
"There is no excuse. You're really talking about human health and the environment," she said. "The truth of the matter is they make all these excuses, but the EPA and the state agencies almost never investigate anything unless someone is pushing.
"People in Maryland have to really push, push the state to push the feds, and push the feds themselves, if they want this cleaned up."
Preoccupied with more visible concerns, such as prostitutes along Pulaski Highway and pollution from the now-closed Pulaski Incinerator, residents of Greater Chesaco and Maryland Manor, a community northwest of the 165-acre dump site, acknowledged that they have not pressed for a cleanup in recent years.
A judge ordered the landfill to close three decades ago, but state officials, having discovered chemical drums on the site in 1979 and 1984, opened an investigation. A brush fire at the site in 1985 exposed still more buried drums, O'Connell said.
A few years ago, negotiations broke down between state officials and the estate of Robb Tyler, who died in 1993. These officials said they also met with other companies that may have disposed of material, and with Browning-Ferris Industries, which bought Tyler's trash-hauling business and operated a garage at the site. But no settlements were reached.
The EPA, with its $1 billion Superfund, is better equipped to clean up the site, Maryland environmental officials said. The EPA is seeking public comment before deciding whether to add the site to its Superfund list.
More than a decade after first writing to the EPA to ask it to clean up the dump, Ellen Hubbard was preparing last week to write again. And she was urging her mother to speak out one more time.
"I said, 'You got involved 45 years ago. Why not get involved again?' "
Pub Date: 1/24/99