Plans to build offices and condominiums at Harbor Point hit a new snag Friday as federal and state regulators rejected the developer's plans for protecting the public from toxic contamination in the ground during construction at the former factory site.
The Environmental Protection Agency and Maryland Department of the Environment called for many minor revisions to the Beatty Development Group'splan, which an EPA spokeswoman characterized as largely routine, with "no showstoppers."
But regulators also ordered more air sampling to correct what they said were flaws in earlier monitoring. The tests found what may have been "artificially high" readings of cancer-causing hexavalent chromium in the air at the 27-acre site and elsewhere downtown, officials said.
It's not clear how long the project will be delayed.The EPA gave the developer 30 days to submit changes to the plan, but a spokeswoman said construction could not begin until new air readings are taken and accepted by the agency. Beatty had hoped to break ground by mid-October, but the recent federal shutdown prevented the EPA from finishing its review of the developer's plan until now.
Harbor Point was the site of a chromium ore processing plant until the 1980s, which contaminated soil and groundwater there. Rather than have the contamination removed, regulators directed that it be entombed beneath a thick cap of clean soil, gravel and plastic, with an underground wall to keep tainted water from seeping into the harbor.
The developer wants to open the cap, temporarily exposing contaminated soil, to drive pilings for a 22-story tower where Exelon Corp. would have its regional headquarters. The plan proposed multiple precautions to prevent any release of chromium, but some Fells Point residents have been concerned that construction could endanger their health. Hexavalent chromium can cause cancer and other health problems if inhaled or ingested.
The EPA and the MDE have given preliminary approval to Beatty's general plan for safeguarding the site. But officials found flaws in how and where the developer's consultant took air samples, which regulators said rendered the readings unreliable. Monitors placed at the National Aquarium and at the Maryland Science Center, for instance, were too close to walls and trees, which the EPA said may have caused chromium readings to be higher than usual.
State regulators also asked for dozens of changes, including provisions for notifying the Living Classrooms Foundation and other neighbors if air monitors picked up potentially hazardous levels of dust during construction.
"Hopefully, they will address every concern in the letters," said Horacio Tablada, land management director for the state Department of the Environment. "We're not going to sacrifice protecting the environment and public health. … We want to ensure that whatever will happen there is done in a safe manner to protect everyone."
Marco Greenberg, vice president for Beatty, said the developer had anticipated that regulators would want some changes. He said the company was eager to provide the additional information, adding that it is uncertain how the project timetable might be affected by having to meet the agencies' conditions.
"We will be working with the agencies to establish the process and schedule for the air monitoring," Greenberg said in an email.
Air samples were taken earlier this year to determine dust and chromium levels. Authorities would then be able to tell if construction work stirred up higher levels, potentially putting people at risk.
The EPA said it found discrepancies in the air readings, suggesting that the monitors may have malfunctioned. It also said that equipment used to analyze the air samples had not been properly calibrated.
Airborne hexavalent chromium levels reported by the developer's consultant at Harbor Point and elsewhere were much higher than what's been measured in the air of other cities nationally, the EPA said. Federal and state regulators both called for the developer to sample air again for two weeks running, using different equipment and analytical methods.
"We need additional sampling and lab analysis before the plan can be approved," EPA spokeswoman Donna Heron said. "The schedule is flexible, but construction cannot begin until EPA has reliable and usable data."
Heron said because officials don't consider the air readings reliable, they can't say for certain whether the chromium levels were exaggerated or, if they were, by how much.
Under the developer's plan, if construction does generate abnormal amounts of dust, steps would be taken to correct the problem promptly or work would be shut down.
City officials have scheduled a public meeting to review the site's history and take questions about the environmental safeguards planned for the redevelopment.
City Councilman James B. Kraft, who arranged the meeting, said it would go forward even if the developer has not completed all the plan changes requested by regulators. The session is from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Nov. 14 at the Morgan Stanley building, 1300 Thames St.