A community group is trying to force a New Jersey-based manufacturing company to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to remove a cancer-causing chemical from a state-owned shipping center on the Baltimore waterfront.
Organizers of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) said they want Honeywell International Inc. to remove millions of cubic yards of chromium - waste from a former chrome factory - from beneath the Dundalk Marine Terminal, where it was dumped decades ago to fill wetlands.
The group points out that Honeywell in April launched a $400 million project to remove the same chemical from a waterfront industrial site in Jersey City, N.J., which was America's other major chrome manufacturing center, along with Baltimore, during the early 20th century.
"We deserve at least the same thing as New Jersey - a permanent cleanup, regardless of the cost," said Bishop Douglas Miles, co-chairman of BUILD, a grass-roots nonprofit organization that has retained attorney Peter Angelos' law firm. "Maryland should be demanding a cleanup for the sake of the workers who are at this terminal every day, for the sake of the people who live in the community nearby."
Maryland environmental and transportation officials, who oversee the Dundalk Marine Terminal, said they are considering whether to require Honeywell to clean up or contain pollution at the site. According to court records, tons of chromium lie beneath asphalt at the shipping terminal, but some has been washed by rain into the Patapsco River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay.
On April 5, the state entered into an agreement with Honeywell that outlines a schedule for studying possible solutions for the problem, including removing the chemical, improving an asphalt cap over the pollutant or leaving the site undisturbed.
"We are going to do what is most efficient and effective to protect the environment and the citizens of Maryland," said James F. Ports Jr., deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation.
Honeywell, an aerospace, defense and chemical company with 120,000 employees worldwide, was forced to clean up the Jersey City site by a nearly decade-long legal battle waged by a community group allied with BUILD.
The chrome waste beneath a former drive-in movie theater next to the Hackensack River is being hauled out of the ground by excavation machines, then carried by truck and train to a hazardous waste landfill in Idaho. Honeywell wants to build a commercial and residential project on the Jersey City waterfront.
Company officials confirmed they are studying the possibility of an even more expensive removal project at the Dundalk Marine Terminal. But they don't think a similar excavation is necessary in Baltimore, in part because the landlord - Maryland - hasn't asked for one, said Katherine Adams, general counsel for Honeywell's specialty materials division. Such an excavation could prove disruptive to the port's business, she said, and leaving the pollutant sealed beneath pavement might be wiser.
"It is a poor use of resources, in our view," Adams said, of excavating buried chrome waste. "We will do what is sensible to protect human health and the environment."
In both Baltimore and Jersey City, factories along the waterfront during the 19th and early 20th centuries imported chromium ore, a yellowish green mineral. The plants roasted the ore to make a chemical compound sold to create shiny bumpers on cars, vibrant paint colors and the sparkle in fireworks.
The Baltimore Chrome Works, later called the Allied chrome plant, operated from 1845 to 1985 on a peninsula of land near Fells Point that is now called Harbor Point.
Chrome waste from the factory was used as landfill at several locations around the harbor. About 2 million cubic yards were used to fill in wetlands during the late 1950s to build the foundation for the Dundalk Marine Terminal, state officials said.
A 2000 study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health found that workers at the plant who inhaled chromium dust doubled their chances of dying of lung cancer.
"The EPA has determined that hexavalent chromium is a more potent human carcinogen than arsenic, benzene and PCBs," U.S. District Judge Dennis M. Cavanaugh wrote in a 2003 order to Honeywell, which merged with Allied Signal in 1999, to clean up the Jersey City chrome waste site.
At the Baltimore chrome factory site, Honeywell's corporate predecessor spent about $110 million during the 1990s to build a cap of plastic, soil, gravel and asphalt on top of the pollutant. Two of the city's biggest developers, C. William Struever and John Paterakis, received approval from the city last month to build a $725 million project of offices, homes, hotels and retail on top of this cap.
"The site is safe for building," said Julie Oberg, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, in a written statement.
Honeywell also worked with the port to spend about $42 million monitoring and containing the pollutant at the Dundalk Marine Terminal. They built a treatment plant to prevent storm water with chromium from flowing into the river.
"The main concern at the site is groundwater contamination, specifically the infiltration of chromium-contaminated water into storm drains," Oberg said. Air monitoring at the Dundalk site, where 2,500 people work, has shown that "airborne dust is not an issue of concern," she said.
The environment department in April signed a consent decree with Honeywell that gives the company 17 years to address any problems at the Dundalk site.
A separate agreement with Honeywell requires Maryland taxpayers to pay 23 percent of any cleanup costs. That could leave state residents with a bill of about $100 million if a Dundalk cleanup turned out to be as costly as the Jersey City project, said Joe Morris, a leader of the Interfaith Community Organization, a nonprofit that sued Honeywell in New Jersey.
Morris said it is "ludicrous" that Maryland is allowing Honeywell almost two decades to solve problems in Dundalk, because the company has promised to finish the Jersey City cleanup within four years. Morris also said that Maryland taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for any of the cleanup, because Honeywell is footing the entire $400 million bill in Jersey City.
"Who ever agreed to that?" Morris said of the taxpayer obligation in Maryland. "That will put a nail in the coffin for any cleanup."