Polluted soil delays Cold Spring police station; Site called safe despite contaminants

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Completion of a new Northern District police station is running at least seven months late because of contaminated soil on the site, where tests have found methane, benzene and other chemicals that can be hazardous in large amounts.

The $4.3 million project, due to be done last month, is now scheduled to open in September, said Department of Public Works Director George G. Balog, who appears to be at odds with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. over the source of at least part of the contamination.

The 5-acre site on West Cold Spring Lane near the Jones Falls Expressway borders a city landfill, closed a decade ago, which might have contributed to the soil problems, Balog said.

"We know that it was a dump in the past, a troubled area and a difficult site, but the location was excellent for the police," Balog said.

The public works director said he was unsure how much of a cost increase the delays and "extra work" will cause, but said it was likely the Board of Estimates would be approached for more money. He said some substances in the soil, such as benzene and methane, were "above accepted levels," but not dangerous.

"The site is a safe site," Balog added. "There are contaminants, but no hazardous materials." Still, some of the soil will be excavated and removed, he said.

This week, after The Sun inquired about the site and the apparently limping project, the city turned over its soil test results to the Maryland Department of the Environment. A preliminary review of the results by the environmental agency revealed no threat to public health, agency spokesman Quentin Banks said.

Benzene is a carcinogen linked to leukemia. Methane is a flammable gas produced by plant matter, animal waste or decaying garbage. In a confined space, high levels of methane can cause explosions or fires.

City officials met last week at the construction site, where a foundation has been laid, with employees of the Baltimore-based construction company, BCI Contractors Inc., to discuss the troubles. Builders also found evidence of tar in the soil, but the levels were not recorded as significant, Balog said.

Balog blamed the presence of methane on an old, unused BGE gas main in the center of the site. He surmised that the main contained lingering or leaking gases. Contractors have plugged the source, he said.

But BGE spokeswoman Jessica Brown disputed that theory yesterday. "They don't leak," she said. "It was an abandoned line, but it was capped and not getting any gas [before construction began]."

Brown said that BGE workers visited the site last week to investigate. Company tests proved that natural gas was not the source of the methane, Brown said. She added, "There is no connection between benzene and natural gas."

City tests detected contaminants before ground was broken in July and determined that the chemicals did not pose an insurmountable problem, public works spokesman Kurt Kocher said this week.

The Northern District site has long been a source of contention among North Baltimore activists. Two years ago, several neighborhood organizations lobbied Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the city planning department to use a vacant F&M; drugstore building in Remington for the station.

The district had outgrown its 100-year-old Victorian station, one of the nation's oldest, in the 3300 block of Keswick Road in Hampden.

Schmoke and Planning Director Charles Graves said yesterday that the city plans to locate the Police Athletic League headquarters and the tactical unit in the F&M; building under a compromise agreement with residents.

With no visible activity at the JFX construction site in recent weeks, questions arose about its viability. Odette Ramos, neighborhood organizer for the Greater Homewood Community Corporation, wrote a letter to Balog last week.

Ramos said that she expects a public works representative to speak at an open meeting of a GHCC task force at 6: 30 p.m. April 8 at the old Northern District.

"What we were concerned about has all come to fruition," said Dennis Byrnes, a Wyman Park resident and a task force member who favored the F&M; site.

Robert Jenkins, 53, who lives in nearby Woodberry, said he noticed a gaseous odor at the groundbreaking in September, during which Balog vowed the project would be done on time. "We were standing there talking, and I smelled methane gas," said Jenkins, a retired heavy equipment operator who suffers from leukemia.

Jenkins said he's worried that landfill dust will be unsettled by the construction and "wind up in the Falls." He's also concerned that police officers in the new station will have to breathe the fumes. "I wouldn't want my grandchildren playing down there. It's best left alone. You don't stir it up and make it worse."

Sun staff writer Gerard Shields contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 3/19/99

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