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Cleanup Pace Quickens at Hagerstown Superfund Site

Wed November 30, 2005 - Northeast Edition
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HAGERSTOWN, MD (AP) The pit where Central Chemical Corp. dumped its waste is hidden, covered with soil to keep toxins from blowing into the nearby neighborhood or washing into streams.

The buildings where workers mixed DDT, arsenic and other agricultural pesticides and fertilizers have been razed, leaving cracked concrete slabs among the weeds covering the fenced, 19-acre parcel.

But despite its desolate appearance, the pace of work is quickening at the Superfund site in Hagerstown’s North End. Eighteen years after a construction crew found the dump while digging a sewer line, an analysis of the contamination is nearly done and formulation of a remedy is in sight.

Eric Newman, remedial project manager for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said progress was stalled for approximately six years after the EPA added Central Chemical to its list of the nation’s most hazardous waste sites in 1997 while the agency wrangled with the company, its suppliers and customers over how to proceed.

They eventually agreed on a two-part investigation that has cost the 15 participating companies approximately $6 million, including demolition of the buildings this spring. The companies’ contractor, URS Corp., of Fort Washington, PA, finished a draft of its Phase II report in January and is doing further tests at EPA’s behest to define the extent of groundwater contamination beyond Central Chemical’s boundaries.

“We’ve gotten a heck of a lot of information in two years,” Newman said. “Since February of 2003, we’ve done a dynamite job.”

After the draft is revised and accepted, possibly by the end of the year, the EPA will propose a cleanup plan, gather public comment and ask the companies to foot the bill for that work as well. URS geologist William G. Murray estimated it could be another two years from now before ground is broken for a cleanup aimed at making the property suitable for the uses a community panel has already selected: light industrial or professional offices.

David Schwartz, president of Central Chemical, which still owns the land, said he agrees with the proposed uses but it’s too soon to say who might want to build there.

“I think we need to keep an open mind until we get closer to the time and see whether there’s a need for what we want to do,” he said.

There are no surprises in URS’ 93-page draft report, which The Associated Press obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The highest concentrations of the dozens of pesticides, solvents, compounds and toxic metals that Central Chemical used or disposed of at the site from the 1930s until 1968 are in the soil. Newman said lesser amounts found in the groundwater pose little risk to humans because there are no nearby drinking-water wells, and the city gets its drinking water from the Potomac River upstream of its confluence with Antietam Creek, which runs through Hagerstown.

The Antietam and a tributary identified as Marsh Run 2 contain some of the substances linked to Central Chemical, but many of the same substances also were found in the same streams upstream from the plant, making it hard to pinpoint the source, according to the report.

Many homes in the adjacent Brighton Manor neighborhood have changed hands since the problem became publicly known in 1992. Some new residents said they didn’t know about Central Chemical. Others who did said they weren’t worried about it.

“It hasn’t concerned me,” said Cecil Howe Sr., a retired auto salesman who moved to the neighborhood four years ago. “The thing’s been there and there’s not much you can do about it.”

Marvin Clites, a mental health worker, said he bought his two-story home in 2002 for $122,900 — approximately half the price of houses in the nearby Northgate neighborhood.

“I figure that if something’s in the air, we’re going to die anyway,” he said.

Home values in Brighton Manor have risen nearly as fast as those in the city as a whole, according to the Washington County Department of Taxation and Assessments. Clites said his was appraised at $169,900 earlier this year.

Kristin Aleshire, a city councilman who also sits on the community panel that proposed the reuse options for the Central Chemical site, said he’s satisfied with the pace of the cleanup project.

“I think it’s more important to proceed cautiously. And I don’t think that anyone expects that there would be an expedient process to undo immediately, without taking such precautions, decades worth of potential damage that have been done,” he said.

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