Taken individually, the more than 40 requests for changes by federal and state regulators to protect the public from environmental hazards at Harbor Point seem do-able.
But taken together, the revisions mandated last week by the Environmental Protection Agency and Maryland Department of the Environment have introduced a significant layer of uncertainty to a project under intense pressure to get construction underway.
The only building so far committed to the site, the 22-story Exelon Tower, is months behind schedule. Completion by the original June 2015 deadline passed the point of near impossibility even before the EPA and MDE – in a surprise move last Thursday – rejected Harbor Point’s plan to detect hazardous hexavalent chromium coming from the site.
Before construction can start, “a detailed Sampling and Analysis Plan and Quality Assurance Project Plan will be necessary for approval,” the regulators said.
How long that will take is anyone’s guess – mostly likely, a few months – since the Beatty Development Group needs EPA approval for a new regimen of air samples and then must conduct enough samples to meet federal requirements.
Will Exelon Bail?
So far, Exelon Corp. has stuck to its plan to build its regional headquarters at Harbor Point, even though multiple vacant sites are available closer to downtown.
The company’s continued fidelity to Harbor Point hinges not only on the construction timetable but also on politics.
Developer Michael Beatty and his longtime patron, John Paterakis, have close ties to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has backed Harbor Point as a “game changer” in her efforts to attract new families to the city.
Rawlings-Blake has shied away from commenting on the environmental issues facing Harbor Point except to say that she has “full confidence” that environmental regulators will protect the public.
Thus, last week’s blanket rejection by the regulators of Beatty’s air sampling plan reintroduces some key questions about how safe it really is to build three million square feet of high-rise office and apartment space over a toxic dump.
Can Chromium be “Controlled”?
Harbor Point was the site of the world’s biggest chromium chemical factory. When Allied Chemical closed the plant in 1985 after more than a century of production, about 2 million tons of contaminated soil was left buried beneath a thick membrane cap.
In its rush to secure $107 million in tax financing from a willing city this summer, the Beatty Group repeatedly flashed its trump card that construction would be closely monitored by the EPA and MDE.
Marco Greenberg, a Beatty vice president, said he was “100% confident” there would be no problem with opening the cap to drive foundation piles for the Exelon Tower because of the high level of government scrutiny.
“This process has been vetted more than any other project in the city’s history,” Greenberg told a Fells Point citizens group last August. In testimony before the City Council, both Greenberg and Beatty described Harbor Point as the “safest” project ever undertaken in Baltimore.
But regulators found significant flaws in how Beatty’s consultant, ERM, took air samples to determine a baseline of chromium exposure near the site. Monitors at the National Aquarium and Maryland Science Center were placed too close to walls or trees, making the readings unreliable and in several cases “clearly in error.”
The readings had the effect of elevating the amount of chromium believed to be in Baltimore’s atmosphere, according to the EPA. This incorrect baseline could mask increased levels of the substance when construction at Harbor Point stirs it up. (Hexavalent chromium is the toxic form of the element chromium. When inhaled, it can cause nosebleeds and respiratory problems and is linked with cancer after prolonged exposure.)
The EPA ordered a revamped monitoring system and new samples taken, which would then require another full agency review.
Questions about Piercing the Cap
Regulators also called on the Beatty Group to provide “more information” on how long it expects to keep the cap open, how it proposes to fit a new membrane over the existing cap, what utilities would have to be buried in the soil, and how the slurry wall surrounding the site will not be compromised by a new bridge at Central Avenue.
The questions echo the concerns raised by several Fells Point citizens, led by restaurant owner Stelios Spilaides and journalist Charles Cohen, as to the dangers of opening up the cap.
As previously reported in The Brew, Beatty proposes to drive more than 1,100 piles through the cap to provide a foundation for the Exelon Tower.
Exposed chromium has a propensity to leak into the atmosphere, infiltrate into rainwater and buckle the ground through its shape-shifting movements.
It is not only considered more dangerous than PCBs, but lasts for years in its dangerous hexavalent form.
In Jersey City, where another Allied Chemical chromium factory was located, New Jersey environmental authorities have required the removal of large portions of the contaminated soil to stop the spread of chromium-laden dust into nearby homes and businesses.
In its “Detailed Development Plan” submitted to regulators in August, Beatty’s geotechnical engineer, Mueser Rutledge, proposed to fit waterproof seals (known as boots) around the exposed pilings and to install drainage nets above the cap to avoid contamination of rainwater.
Trucked through East Baltimore
The Exelon Tower’s foundation, however, would also require large excavation pits dug through the cap and the contaminated spoils removed. Mueser Rutledge proposed loading the soil into sealed containers that would then be trucked offsite for disposal.
This means that a steady stream of trucks would leave the site – and rumble through East Baltimore’s narrow streets – carrying chromium-tainted dirt as well as contaminated concrete pilings, pier sections and other debris buried at the site.
After the pilings are drilled, the Beatty Group proposes to construct the Exelon Tower over the cap (about 15 to 20 feet above the current surface).
To help defray the high costs of such construction, the Rawlings-Blake administration is ready to issue the first of $107 million in TIF financing bonds to underwrite the costs of new parks and a waterfront promenade.
The city also plans to use about $95 million in federal highway funds to install new roads and a four-lane Central Avenue bridge to the site.
The EPA last week asked the Beatty Group to supply more information on the construction of the bridge, specifically how its piers might impact on the slurry wall that keeps contaminated groundwater from leaking into Baltimore Harbor.
By itself, the request seems modest. But like other aspects of this billion-dollar project, it could open up a Pandora’s box of engineering and health-related issues.