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Mobtown Beat

Poison Control

EPA and MDE hold a meeting to discuss toxic vapors with Westport residents

Christopher Myers
2103 Annapolis Road, the first of two contaminated former chemical metals industries sites to raise concerns about toxic vapors seeping from the soil; it's now owned by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

By Chris Landers | Posted 8/5/2009

Back in the 1970s, when K Thompson lived in Westport, she says the ammonia smell coming from the metal-reclamation plant on Annapolis Road was strong enough to sour milk. When federal and state agencies came to clean up the former home of Chemical Metals Industries (CMI) in 1981, they found drums filled with chemicals littering two abandoned sites, a block apart. It was the first emergency clean-up under the federal Superfund law, and environmental agencies are still dealing with CMI's toxic legacy ("The Vapors," Feature, July 22).

On July 28, representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) met with Westport residents and business owners to tell them about the ongoing clean-up, as potentially harmful vapors from the groundwater under the area have migrated under some of the 21 rowhouses between the former CMI sites, which bookend the 2000 block of Annapolis Road.

Greg Ham, who manages one of the sites for the EPA, said his agency had removed more than 500 drums filled with a variety of chemicals in 1981. Underground tanks at one of the sites, a former gas station, were filled with cement. The top layer of dirt was removed from both lots, at 2001 and 2103 Annapolis Road, and asphalt caps were installed. In 1997, and again in 2002, high levels of volatile organic compounds and metals were found in the soil beneath the caps at 2103 Annapolis Road, which was then being used by MDE to store equipment for dealing with hazardous materials. Tests of the air in the MDE building revealed traces of chemicals used as industrial solvents, but Ham said at the meeting that the levels of contamination did not pose a "short-term" health risk.

James Carroll, a program administrator for the MDE, said that in 2007, a venting system had been installed at the site to allow chemicals under the building at 2103 to escape into the air, where they did not pose a risk. Tests in 2003 and 2005 confirmed that the chemicals in the groundwater had migrated to the homes between the two sites, and further air-quality testing in six of the houses 2007 and 2008 revealed the presence of solvents in the air of all six houses tested.

"There's a low-level threat there," Ham said of the property at 2103. "We were prepared to take immediate action if needed, but the levels didn't justify it at this time."

The property at 2001 Annapolis Road is still owned by CMI, according to state property records, and officials at the meeting agreed with Ham that "it's pretty clear that they're responsible" for the contamination. Court records from the 1981 dissolution of the company have vanished. The owners of CMI included Jeanne Mandel, the wife of former governor Marvin Mandel, and Warren Stein, who recently told City Paper he had been set up in the business by Marvin Mandel while he was dating the former governor's daughter. Jeanne Mandel passed away in 2001; Stein, who is listed as CMI's director and president, says he never set foot on the property.

The risks to nearby residents are low, officials said at the meeting, but venting systems are being installed in the rowhouses between the site to mitigate any long-term health risks. Asked about the delay between dealing with the MDE-occupied site in 2005 and the homes down the street, where efforts to vent the chemicals are beginning now, Carroll attributed it to difficulty locating the owners of the homes and securing their permission.

There were few questions at Tuesday's meeting, but attendees didn't seem to feel there were many answers, either. Linda Towe, who attended the meeting on behalf of Project T.O.O.U.R, a non-profit community group, said she felt overwhelmed by the technical information about the contaminants, and she wasn't even sure what questions to ask. She hoped to find out more, and post flyers to tell the rest of the neighborhood.

Towe and others said they had been unaware of the problem until a City Paper reporter had contacted them about it, and were disappointed by the lack of information from the environmental agencies.

"For them not to say anything to the community," Towe said, "I thought that was really strange."

K Thompson, who owns the bar K's Korner nearby, lamented the small number of residents who attended, and said she would keep searching for information about the extent of the problem.

"I just don't understand why the community isn't at this meeting," Thompson said afterward. "There's too many questions to ask, and I'm going to keep asking." ?

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