Citing arsenic levels that are 60 times higher than normal, Howard County's top health official called yesterday for mandatory comprehensive testing of land at the Turf Valley planned community in Ellicott City, where the owner has been trying for two decades to add more than 1,000 homes.
Health Officer Peter L. Beilenson said he ended negotiations with Turf Valley over voluntary ground testing for the project after learning last week of tests done two years ago that found a high arsenic level on the property.
"I'm truly outraged that they did not divulge this, though they clearly knew it for all these years," Beilenson said of the developer. "We don't understand why they didn't just say to us in April, 'Hey, we know this is a problem.' ... Now they're going to have a PR disaster on their hands."
County Executive Ken Ulman, who said he was also surprised and disappointed to discover the two-year-old test results existed, said he plans to propose legislation that would require testing on all golf courses in the county that are being redeveloped.
Beilenson said he reported the contamination to state officials and asked Turf Valley's owner to apply to participate in the Maryland Department of the Environment Voluntary Cleanup Program.
It was the latest twist in a long-running controversy over plans to build offices and stores and add housing units at Turf Valley, which also encompasses golf courses, a resort hotel and conference center.
The test showed the land had 300 parts per million of arsenic - well over the 4.9 parts per million that is common in Central Maryland, Beilenson said. The test also found 640 parts per million of lead, which significantly exceeds the safe level of 400 parts per million, he said.
Louis Mangione, vice president of Mangione Family Enterprises, which owns Turf Valley, expressed surprise about the county's reaction.
"I find that little bit stunning in view of the fact that we've been talking," he said, adding. "We're going to follow all the right steps and do all the right things, which we have done all along."
Some local residents would disagree. They have been asking the developer for years to test the site thoroughly, arguing that the land could be contaminated from pesticides and other chemicals used to maintain the grounds, including a former golf course slated for redevelopment. The developer has tested 13 samples, but critics say that is insufficient given that the property extends over 800 acres.
County officials and the developer had been working together for months to craft a testing plan when lawyers disclosed July 23 that a prospective buyer had hired consultants to conduct tests on 53 ground samples in 2005, Beilenson said.
Though lawyers did not make copies of the results available to the county, they permitted a Department of Public Works representative to look at the findings. She reported several days later that the area near a maintenance shed was a so-called "hot spot." Though the consultants had recommended further testing in adjacent areas, those tests had not been completed, Beilenson said.
Mangione said he would "investigate" the voluntary cleanup program but defended his company's actions and the delay in disclosing the test results. "There is no requirement to make the tests public unless you are going to do work in the area or people are exposed," he said.
Arsenic and lead soil contamination is relatively easy to fix by carefully digging out contaminated soil and removing it, Beilenson said. In general, arsenic does not travel well, which means that contamination of ground water is unlikely.
Arsenic, a naturally occurring element, is poisonous when consumed in high doses. In lesser amounts it can cause cancer, abnormal heart rhythms and lower IQ scores in children with prolonged exposure, according to federal health officials.
The hot spot lies under asphalt and is not dangerous to nearby residents, Beilenson said. "There appears to be absolutely no reason for concern," he said. "Neither the county executive nor myself nor the MDE will allow any residential development until this is remediated."
Workers recently installed a county water line near the hot spot and are still working on a road that comes within about 30 feet of the contaminated area, said James Irvin, director of Howard County's Department of Public Works. Maryland Occupational Safety and Health took air samples in the area and determined that it was safe to work there, Beilenson said.
But some residents who have been pushing for comprehensive testing remain dubious. "It was negligence on the part of the county to allow water-line construction to go forward and to potentially expose contract workers and county employees without putting appropriate environmental protection on them," such as protective clothing and masks, said Marc Norman. "What they're finding now is just the tip of the iceberg."
The Maryland Department of the Environment has received a letter from Beilenson, but officials there won't determine a course of action until they see results of the 2005 tests, said spokesman Robert Ballinger.
The disclosures about the contaminants come after a controversy earlier this year in Baltimore's Swann Park, where tests showing high levels of arsenic had been covered up for three decades.