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The Vapors

Toxic gases seeping from the ground in Westport are news to most people who live there

Photos by Christopher Myers
Bill Cragg on the porch of his Westport home, the bottom floors of which has been suffused with potentially cancer-causing vapors for years.
Project T.O.O.U.R.'s Linda Towe didn't know about lingering concerns over the CMI site until City Paper told her about them.
Westport Improvement Association's Ruth Sherrill

By Van Smith | Posted 7/22/2009

Bill Cragg works for a local construction firm. He was born and raised in the same Westport house, 2047 Annapolis Road, where he still lives today. It's the end-of-row unit on the southern end of the block, and it has a porch and a little yard that wraps around, next to the railroad tracks. Behind the homes on Cragg's block are fields of BGE power transmitters, humming in the shimmering heat of summer. On the other side of Annapolis Road is an overgrown empty lot that abuts Gwynns Falls, which flows a short ways downstream, past the BRESCO garbage incinerator, into the shallows of the Patapsco River beneath the I-95 overpass.

Like most of the residential blocks in Westport, Cragg's is nestled in an industrial setting, even if most of the industry packed up and left years ago. There are plenty of vacant, boarded-up homes and only a handful of businesses. There's still a gravel pit, and the trains roll by, and BGE still transmits power, but much of the old prosperity that Westport enjoyed during its heavy-industry heyday dried up and went away over the last two generations.

Now Westport sits, underpopulated and poor, though hopes for the future have recently been kindled by the promise of new jobs and residents attracted to its Middle Branch waterfront, where planned development is expected to bring retail and office jobs along with affordable new housing. Until then, though, Westport remains rough around the edges--including the 2000 block of Annapolis Road, where Cragg's house stands.

On either side of Cragg's block, at 2001 and 2103 Annapolis Road, are the former sites of Chemical Metals Industries (CMI), a precious-metals smelter tied to former Maryland governor Marvin Mandel. Cragg remembers that, back when CMI was still operating in the 1970s, its chemical fumes and acids were a neighborhood hazard.

"It stank like ammonia, and the acid that would flow off the asphalt there, it burned me one time, burned my dog, burned a friend of mine," says Cragg, who's now 60 years old. "And there was a chemical fire and explosions there, and some kids got burned. We complained about it a lot, but the city didn't do anything."

In 1981, the toxic mess at CMI spurred the first emergency clean-up under the then-new federal Superfund law, which was designed to pay for making dangerous chemical-waste sites safe again. Vats and drums of improperly stored chemicals were emptied and hauled away, and contaminated soil was removed, all in a $360,000 (roughly $849,6000 in 2009 dollars) effort to prevent public harm. But according to recent federal court documents, those long-ago efforts weren't enough, and the CMI site continues to pose a cancer risk to long-term residents of nearby homes subjected to "vapor intrusion" of chemical-laden air rising through the soil from contaminated groundwater below.

The two chemicals carried in the vapors--trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE)--are industrial solvents that, with lengthy, high-level exposure, are believed to increase the risk of cancer. Groundwater sampling at the CMI site in 2005 revealed TCE and PCE at levels as high as 366 and 496 parts per billion, respectively, far above the 5 parts per billion the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers safe. Yet environmental officials stress that actual health effects for those most affected by the vapors are likely minimal.

"There is no risk to others than the immediate residents" of the affected rowhouses, explains Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) administrator Shari Wilson. There are 21 potentially affected homes, though only a handful of them have actually been tested to find the level of chemical contamination in the indoor air. Despite the obvious vacancies on the block, many of the houses are lived in, though only a few, like Cragg's, are owner occupied.

MDE's coordinator for the CMI site, James Carroll, sums up the remaining problems succinctly. "We know that there is groundwater contamination," he says, "but there are no drinking-water wells in the affected area, and there's a natural clay liner close to the surface that's carrying the groundwater a short distance away into the Gwynns Falls, so the affected area is small and contained. We know vapors in some of the homes present a risk that exceeds our standards, but the health risk is a long-term calculation, and the ambient air outdoors is not a problem at all."

Greg Ham, who oversees the CMI site for EPA, emphasizes that the government's cancer-risk guidelines for TCE and PCE are "based on 30 years of 24-hours-a-day exposure, so they are very conservative estimates."

Despite the remoteness of the risk, the government, having suspected since the 1990s that CMI's remaining pollution was causing vapor intrusion, is taking steps to end it. Those most affected--people living in homes in the 2000 block of Annapolis Road, between CMI's two contaminated parcels--have been alerted about the vapors over the last several years, as environmental officials have conducted tests in and around their homes.

This comes as a surprise to state Sen. George Della (D-46th District), who represents Westport and has a handy memory of his district's history and neighborhoods.

"I was not aware of any of this," Della says. "I only remember [CMI] as the first Superfund site. I've not heard anything about it since--well, for almost 30 years. Never has this come up, that there are lingering issues there."

Of the several Westport leaders interviewed for this article, none knew of CMI's ongoing problems until told of them by City Paper earlier this summer. They now say they've been left in the dark about the longstanding chemical threat and the government's strategy to quash it.

Colleen Vanskiver, president of the Westport Business Association and owner of Colleen's Corner Tavern, says she remembers the 1981 clean-up at CMI, but "I haven't heard that there was anything there that was still hazardous." When told about the current activities to clean up the site, and that the affected residents have been made aware of the problem, she says: "I think that's appalling that nobody knew about that for all these years. How can you say that that's only affecting one block of people? That's something that the whole community should be aware of!"

Also hearing of CMI and its troubles for the first time this summer were James Alston and Ruth Sherrill of the Westport Improvement Association and Linda Towe, the executive director of Project T.O.O.U.R., a nonprofit providing social services in Westport.

"It's so close, what's happening [with CMI]," says Alston, an Annapolis Road resident who grew up in Westport and lives there still. "I'm just amazed, and kind of disappointed, that they didn't inform the community overall. We only discovered it through [contact from a reporter], and we're right next door to it. No fliers, no notification--I don't believe there were any public notices in the paper, to my knowledge."

Even Patrick Turner, whose Turner Development Group's well-publicized voluntary environmental clean-up of Westport's nearby waterfront sets the stage for planned retail, office, and residential development there, says he didn't know about CMI. "I knew MDE owned a contaminated site down there somewhere," he says, "but I never even heard of Chemical Metals Industries. Nobody contacted us about anything going on with it, and I'm not overly concerned with it."

The Center for Public Environmental Oversight (CPEO), based in California, posts documents about vapor intrusion on its web site, including the "Report on the National Stakeholders' Panel on Vapor Intrusion," an event held in San Diego in 2008. In it, people who've lived through the experience of finding they've been living with solvents in their indoor air share their advice with officials and consultants who manage the problem.

"Vapor-intrusion investigations must be discussed as soon as possible," one presenter warned. "Residents will be mistrustful if they find out about possible vapor intrusion from a newspaper or television news program. Residents and anyone involved should be sent information, and a meeting should be scheduled so everyone can learn about this together."

CPEO's executive director, Lenny Siegel, visited Westport last year, and he's familiar with Turner's plans for the Middle Branch waterfront, as well as the voluntary clean-up of the old industrial land there. But he had no idea that Westport suffered from a vapor-intrusion problem until he received an e-mail from City Paper with the CMI court documents attached. He e-mailed back, saying the government "should convene a public meeting explaining what is it looking for, and why. If indeed the groundwater plume of organic solvents extends under people's homes, then they have been continuously exposed (whenever home) for years."

Environmental officials, however, say it's a "judgment call," determining when to notify others besides those living and working in buildings that suffer from vapor intrusion. "You don't want to alarm people," MDE's Carroll says. So although CMI is not Westport's only lingering environmental challenge, it is its stealthiest, as the government's efforts to tackle it have been kept relatively quiet.

"We haven't held any public meetings, but we are always willing to do that," EPA's Ham says. "You basically have brought the community's interest to our attention," says Wilson, adding that a public meeting in Westport about the activities at the CMI site is now being scheduled.

Meanwhile, word of mouth has been spreading the news about the CMI site's ongoing pollution problems and the work being done about it. At a July 14 community meeting at the Westport Academy, held to discuss Westport's rezoning and urban-renewal plans, Alston asks about "the current environmental threat that's at the bottom of Annapolis Road," and Vanskiver jumps in to answer. "They're cleaning it up from 1981, when Marvin Mandel's wife owned it, and it's been running into the Gwynns Falls and now they're cleaning it."

Then Vanskiver announces that, in that same school dining room on July 28 at 7 p.m., there will be a public meeting to discuss the pollution problem, and MDE and EPA will be there. "We'll be passing out fliers around the neighborhood about it," she says afterward.

The CMI site is actually two lots: 2001 and 2103 Annapolis Road, with a block of rowhouses and a railroad crossing in between them. The smelter, which used chemicals to recover market-grade gold, silver, and copper from a variety of sources, was at 2103, next to the railroad tracks, and after the 1981 clean-up it was capped with asphalt, taken over, and resurrected by the Maryland Department of the Environment as its Westport field office. Suspected vapor intrusion there was confirmed in 2002, and a system designed to remove the vapors was installed in 2006. Similar technology is being installed in some of the nearby rowhouses at government expense. In addition, according to Carroll, the state is conducting "in situ injections of chemicals that react with PCE and TCE and cause it to break down underground, so we don't have to worry about it in the long run."

The situation with 2001 Annapolis Road, a former gas station that CMI used as a storage lot and which is now vacant and grass-covered, is murkier. State real-estate records show it as still owned by the long-defunct CMI, so the government has been stymied when seeking an owner to ask permission to enter the property for testing. Soil, groundwater, and indoor-air sampling has been done in recent years at the MDE facility at 2103 Annapolis Road, and at many of the rowhouses, documenting the extent of the vapor intrusion there. But only groundwater testing has been done beneath 2001 Annapolis Road, which revealed high enough TCE and PCE levels to cause concern about cancer risks from the vapor intrusion observed in several of the homes. Without an owner's permission, nothing more could be done without a warrant.

This summer the EPA obtained a warrant to perform soil tests at 2001 Annapolis Road, sidestepping the need to ask permission from the property's unidentified owner, and on July 8, a drilling contractor began taking core samples. The results, according to the CMI site coordinator for EPA, Greg Ham, will help determine the best strategy for mitigating the remaining contamination. "If there is still solvent contamination in the soil itself," Ham says, "we'll look at whether that needs to be removed."

The court papers filed in the warrant case not only sparked community awareness (via City Paper's inquiries) of CMI's ongoing contamination problems. They also revealed an intriguing aspect of CMI's history: The company was tied to former Maryland governor Marvin Mandel, whose release from federal prison on the corruption convictions that ended his political career coincided with the 1981 Superfund clean-up of the CMI site.

Chemical Metals Industries, according to the court documents, was a wholly-owned subsidiary of L&M Enterprises, a company whose shareholders were Lester Feit, Warren Stein, and Jeanne Mandel, the wife of the then-jailed ex-governor. As the owner of a company whose waste contaminated a site cleaned up under Superfund, L&M could have been on the hook for the $360,000 it cost to clean up the CMI site, but it was in the midst of a court-appointed receivership at the time, and soon was completely dissolved.

Jeanne Mandel passed away in 2001, and Marvin Mandel, now a lawyer and lobbyist, did not return calls or answer a detailed e-mail, with court documents attached, about the current and past circumstances involving the site. Lester Feit, who court documents describe as 90 years old and who government investigators were not able to contact, did not respond to messages left at his home and with his lawyers. But Warren Stein, now the 54-year-old owner of Maryland Crab & Oyster Co. in Harwood, near Annapolis, was unabashed about discussing the situation.

"I never even set foot on the property in question," Stein says of 2001 Annapolis Road, which still lists CMI as its owner. "It was a mess. We never went in it."

The court documents supporting the EPA's warrant state that Stein, as CMI's president and director, "may [still] have the power to act" on CMI's behalf. So last year, Stein was contacted by EPA's Ham, who asked permission to enter the property for testing. "Mr. Stein stated that it was alright with him," the court documents relate. But Stein soon sent the EPA a letter stating "that he did not give his permission for anything except for Mr. Ham to research and prove Mr. Stein's ownership of the property and responsibility in this matter."

"My best guess would be that this is an oversight," Stein says of the land records showing CMI as current owner of 2001 Annapolis Road. "I highly doubt that I'm responsible for something that I've never touched."

Asked how, at such a young age, he ended up co-owning a precious-metals smelter with Marvin Mandel's wife, Stein says, "I was engaged to their daughter, Helen Dorsey, who I dated for a long time" and who also worked at CMI. Later, he explains, "I moved to the Eastern Shore with Helen, and we were together five or six more years."

Stein says he knew ex-governor Mandel "very well."

"He was the one who set me up with the smelter deal," Stein says. "I never knew Lester Feit until Marvin. Lester knew of this place owned by a Russian immigrant, Isaac Pancer, and the guy died of a heart attack, and Lester told the governor about it, and the next thing I know, the governor is asking me if I have any interest in running a chemical company. I walked into the place, and I was president. And gold prices kept going up and we made some money. In those days, I was something--I was a little wonder boy. Yeah, I lost a million-dollar business to the state. As for Marvin, we still say hello, that's about it, though I'm still in touch with Helen."

When told City Paper had been trying to contact the former governor, Stein's response was, "He didn't call you back, did he?" Attempts to speak with Dorsey were unsuccessful as well.

Later in the 1980s, Stein pleaded guilty to federal cocaine-conspiracy charges in Maryland and did his own stint in prison. "I was a young guy with some money, and I got caught," he says. Feit, too, has a criminal history; in 1966, in federal court in Maryland, he pleaded guilty to mail fraud and submitting false bids on federal contracts, was fined $21,000, and was given an 18-month suspended sentence. Still, Stein says they "ran a very clean operation at CMI. Next thing I know, I'm outta there for something I didn't even do. The mess was there from the people we bought it from."

That "mess" is still causing problems, nearly three decades after the Superfund clean-up there. But to many of those living on top of it, it seems not to be such a big deal--though CMI's political history remains a source of amusement.

"I got high levels at my place, but nothing life-threatening," Bill Cragg says of the chemical-laden vapors that for decades have been seeping up out of the ground into the lower levels of his house. But he's not concerned about it. "I was born and raised in that house, and there's no kind of odor, nothing that causes illness."

Still, he's happy that the government is acting to solve the problem, and he signed off on having "their remedial system" set up in his home, even though he says the pollution isn't bothering him. The technology simply vents the vapors to the outdoors, preventing them from building up inside.

"It's minimal, as far as any impact is concerned," Cragg says. "I don't think anybody would think that these types of chemicals still exist down there, after all these years."

Cragg recalls environmental regulators first notifying him about his home's vapor-intrusion problem three or four years ago, and that they came and tested three times since then.

For Cragg's neighbor, Jim Fox, the news came more recently, in a letter last year. "I have a little boy," says Fox, a waiter who bought his house three years ago, "and he's now 2. It made me feel a little better that they tested the vapors." Another resident of the block, a young woman sitting on the front porch, holding her infant, says she's heard nothing about it, though she only moved in six months ago, she adds, asking that her name not be used. When told that there's a health risk from long-term exposure, she shrugs it off. "I won't be here that long, anyhow."

Cragg says that his family complained about the problems with CMI years ago, "And then the EPA came in and took it over, and it turns out the ex-governor's wife, Jeanne Mandel, is one of the owners. I never could prove it, but I'm thinking, Well, that's why the city didn't do anything. 'Cause you know how politics runs in here."

There is, it seems, no answer to the question of what happened to the court records from the 1981 Baltimore City Circuit Court case, in which CMI and L&M Enterprises were dissolved. In the EPA's warrant application to obtain access to the property for testing, it simply says that "The Court has been unable to locate any records associated with this case." Without them, the EPA couldn't find evidence that CMI's ownership of 2001 Annapolis Road had transferred to someone else. Meanwhile, the property-tax bill still gets sent to CMI at the only address it has left: 2001 Annapolis Road.

A missing court file might seem an innocent, though regrettable circumstance, but for the presence of the Mandels and two other ex-cons in the CMI picture.

"It's an oddball set of circumstances," says Sen. George Della. "But the first concern should be that there are still people that live there, and have lived there for generations. That's the first concern." MDE and EPA, as they work to solve the problem, probably couldn't have said it any better.

Chemical Metals Industry Admin Warrant Chemical Metals Industry Memo in Support Chemical Metals Industry Exhibits Chemical Metals Industry Declaration of Gregory D. Ham

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