By TIMOTHY B. WHEELER AND ERIN COX and The Baltimore Sun
Aug 31, 2013 | 8:03 PM
While the Harbor Point project's millions in public financing have dominated debate in Baltimore this summer, a carcinogen buried beneath the proposed waterfront development has sparked concerns about the safety of neighboring residents and the people who will work at the site in Fells Point.
Environmental regulators who oversaw the cleanup of the former chromium plant there 20 years ago have given preliminary approval to build a 22-story tower on the 27-acre peninsula on the Inner Harbor. The soil and groundwater there are riddled with toxic chromium entombed beneath a "cap" of clean soil, plastic, clay and gravel up to 5 feet thick, according to government records.
Workers will have to create a series of temporary openings in the cap to drive more than 1,000 pilings deep into the ground to support the building. They will dig through the clean dirt on top and peel back the plastic liner to expose contaminated soil beneath.
The developers and regulators say the work can be done safely. Precautions are being taken to ensure that none of the toxic compounds escape, they say, noting that similar sites such as that of the nearby Morgan Stanley building in Fells Point and elsewhere in Baltimore have been developed without incident.
"It's not like we're breaking new ground here," said Robert Greaves, an official in the Environmental Protection Agency's Mid-Atlantic regional office, which oversees the site. "We have done it on the same property. The process has been shown to work."
But some neighbors and others have expressed reservations about the Harbor Point project. And officials acknowledge that the Morgan Stanley building site is less contaminated than the proposed site of the Exelon Corp. regional headquarters.
"It's a little too much to ask of those of us who live around here," said Stelios Spiliadis, a Fells Point restaurateur and developer of an inn situated across South Caroline Street from the site. "What if they make mistakes? What if it doesn't work the way they say it's going to work? Why should the Fells Point community be a guinea pig?"
Experts say it is understandable that the public would have questions, given what's known about chromium.
"It's nasty," said Thomas Burke, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health. He dealt with chromium as an environmental and health official years ago in New Jersey, which also had chrome plants and residential communities built atop toxic slag from the facilities.
Chromium can take different forms, with very different health consequences. In one form, it is an essential nutrient. Another form — widely used for chrome-plating metals, making dyes and pigments, tanning leather and preserving wood — is toxic. The "hexavalent chromium" lingering at Harbor Point resulted from spills and fallout from processing ore therefrom the 1840s to the mid-1980s.
Chronic exposure can damage the respiratory tract and other organs and produce skin rashes. Studies indicate that chromium can cause cancer if inhaled, and the EPA has proposed classifying it as a likely carcinogen if consumed in drinking water.
Neighbors around two decades ago recall workers in protective suits laboring to demolish the old Baltimore Chrome Works, where hexavalent chromium tainted the soil, dissolved in the groundwater and was seeping into the harbor.
The plant's owner, Allied-Signal Inc., signed a consent decree in 1989 that required the company to remove all of the buildings and cap the site to shield people from exposure to toxic dust. Allied had to armor the shoreline against erosion and install a "slurry wall" of clay and clean soil down to bedrock around the perimeter to keep tainted groundwater from reaching the Patapsco River.
It took a decade and $100 million to accomplish. Honeywell, which inherited Allied's assets and environmental liabilities, has continued to monitor the site and pump and treat groundwater to keep it from seeping into the river.
The consent decree provided for the possibility of redeveloping the site. But at the time, many experts — Burke included — doubted that anything substantial could ever be built there.
Since then, offices, shopping centers and homes have been built in Maryland and elsewhere on "brownfields," as former industrial sites are called. Even onetime toxic waste dumps cleaned up under the federal Superfund program have been redeveloped, EPA and Honeywell representatives say. Some projects involved driving pilings through caps covering hazardous wastes.
Environmental activists say they support the redevelopment of contaminated properties once they have been cleaned up, but caution that building on land that still contains materials such as chromium is not to be taken lightly.
"Any time there are plans to develop facilities where people will live and work on land once contaminated with a known human carcinogen, folks in the community should be concerned — and that goes for those who live near this site in Baltimore," said Alex Formuzis, spokesman for the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based advocacy organization. "Hexavalent chromium is a notorious cancer-causing chemical that has left many communities around the country, most notably Hinkley, Calif., with serious and long-term health problems as a result of being exposed to the substance."
In Hinkley, an uncapped site featured in the 2000 film "Erin Brockovich," residents sued and won a $300 million settlement for the chromium-laced waste dumped in the ground around their homes. Despite a $700 million cleanup so far, contaminated groundwater continues to spread and as many as one-third of the residents are being bought out.
Representatives of the Harbor Point developer say the Exelon building will be constructed with great care, with close oversight not only from federal and state regulators, but from Honeywell, which remains liable if any contaminants escape.
"We've got belt-and-suspenders all over the place making sure the contractor is doing what they're supposed to be doing," said Jonathan Flesher, senior development director for Beatty Development Group.
The developer plans to open the cap to drive 1,063 hollow steel pilings into the ground below to serve as a foundation for the Exelon building.
The openings will be no more than 400 square feet each, said Flesher, just big enough to drive a pile or two at a time.Once sunk, they will be filled with concrete, and a plastic "boot" will be placed over the top and welded to the restored plastic liner. Then the rest of the cap will be reinstalled.
Some say they are worried about the construction crews who will be closest to any potential release of contaminants.
"Who does that kind of work?" asked Helena Hicks, a civil rights and environmental activist from Grove Park. "Poor whites, blacks and Hispanics. That's who's going to be digging it up."
The developer and regulators say there will be safeguards for the workers and the public.
While areas of the cap are open, Flesher said, any exposed contaminated soil will be sprayed with mist to prevent dust from becoming airborne. Workers will be required to wear long-sleeve shirts and possibly gloves in certain situations. The air around cap openings will be monitored, and an alarm will sound if an increase in dust is detected.
Before pile-driving begins, a porous synthetic fabric will be laid over the exposed soil and a layer of concrete put down to give crews a clean surface on which to work.
Such dust monitoring is not usually required at construction sites. "It's actually safer to build here than virtually anywhere else in the city," said Marco Greenberg, a vice president of Beatty Development.
Edward J. Bouwer, a professor of environmental engineering at Hopkins, believes the pilings can be driven without releasing chromium but recommends that those working near exposed soil wear respirators.
Officials with the EPA and the state say safeguards proved adequate when the seven-story building that houses offices for the investment bank Morgan Stanley was built three years ago. Pilings had to be driven into the ground beneath the cap in that case as well.
"We're comfortable with that," Russell Fish, the EPA's project manager for the site, said of the precautions taken to monitor dust while driving pilings.
Air monitoring detected hexavalent chromium during the Morgan Stanley construction, said Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, and it has been picked up in monitoring conducted in preparation for the Exelon project. But MDE staffers "are not aware" of chromium or dust levels exceeding "action levels" during the first building project, he said.
Apperson said the developer'splan complies with monitoring required by federal regulations for workers at hazardous waste sites, and includes respiratory protection and protective clothing for workers who will be in contact with contaminated soils.
Once the pilings are driven and the cap replaced, a concrete slab will go on top to serve as a floor for the building.
"It'll be more effective, actually," said Flesher. "Not only will we be replacing the cap that's there, we're in essence putting on another cap — putting buildings, roadways and concrete slabs over everything."
Environmental regulators and redevelopers from outside Maryland are closely watching the Baltimore construction project.
Michael McCabe directed the EPA's Mid-Atlantic region during the late 1990s, when the chromium was being entombed beneath the Inner Harbor. Today, McCabe is a court-appointed administrator overseeing the cleanup of 20 chromium sites in New Jersey. There, a 2009 state court settlement forced energy companies to remove the concrete caps put in decades ago — before the Baltimore cleanup — and haul away all of the contaminated soil. At times they are digging 35 feet below the surface to make the sites suitable for redevelopment.
"Capping is an older form of stabilizing the site," McCabe said. "It does not represent a cleanup; it's containment."
Victoria Streitfeld, a Honeywell spokeswoman, said containment was chosen over removal in Baltimore in part because of "technical difficulties associated with excavation of a site surrounded by water." But she noted that regulators believed capping would protect health and the environment while allowing for redevelopment.
Some nearby residents remain unconvinced.
"It seems counterintuitive," said Charles Cohen, a freelance writer who lives in Fells Point. "If you're making a toxic site safe by trying to close it off, why are you opening it up?"
Unlike the City Council public hearing and open meetings on the $107 million tax increment financing plan, there hasn't been any official airing of the environmental issues.
"That's why there hasn't been any public outcry," said Cohen. "There hasn't been any public discussion — I wonder if it's too late." Without reassurances, he added, he would consider moving with his two young daughters from his home of 15 years.
The developer and state and federal agencies have scheduled a public meeting from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sept. 11 at the Morgan Stanley building to present plans for the Exelon project and take questions.
State and federal regulators, who have the final say on environmental safeguards, say they're reviewing the developer's detailed construction plans and expect to make a decision this fall.
"My concern is that it's done right," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "Yes, this is a delicate operation. But in order for it to happen, we had to get pre-approval from the regulatory agencies, and they believe it can be done in a way that's safe."
Despite other successful redevelopments, Burke and other experts say that every hazardous site is different and deserves close scrutiny.
"You do it cautiously," Burke said, "because these sites can be porcupines."
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.