A 15-vehicle cavalcade rolled out of this small Eastern Shore town in the early morning darkness today, escorting the first shipment of PCB-contaminated waste oil from an aging tank farm here to a federal supply depot at Curtis Bay, just south of Baltimore.
The departure of the 3,600-gallon shipment was treated as an overdue victory by the small number of town residents who emerged to watch the caravan leave at 1:15 a.m., but it represented a bitter defeat for Anne Arundel County officials, whose final legal efforts to block the shipment had been rebuffed by the state's highest court at the last minute.
The Court of Appeals decision settled the last in a series of protracted intragovernmental disputes that had stymied the effort to remove the cancer-causing chemicals from the rusting tanks on the shore of the Nanticoke River, a prime spawning ground for rockfish, to a site meeting the stringent federal requirements for the storage of such toxic waste.
Fifteen hours after the court handed down its ruling, an eerie procession set out from Sharptown, including the truck carrying the chemicals, a Maryland Water Resources Department spill recovery truck, two cars carrying state and federal waste disposal experts, three state police cars, and nine cars and vans carrying assorted reporters and photographers.
"This just seem like one of them movies," Sharptown resident Doug McGee said as he watched the procession form. "This whole rigamarole, it's just been overdocumented. It's become anticlimactic now that it's leaving."
Mayor Ralph Cordrey was more jocular as he bustled about offering encouragement and advice to the federal and state officials he has worked with over the past month.
"Have a good trip," Cordrey said, patting federal waste disposal expert Phillip Retallick on the back. "If you have any trouble with the Curtis Bay people, give me a call and I'll bring along some of the boys with shotguns," he added jokingly.
There was no joking, however, among the 25 Curtis Bay residents who greeted the caravan at the end of its uneventful 100-mile journey in a drizzle at 3:50 a.m. "Take away PCBs," they chanted, as they moved in haphazard circles before the television cameras.
"We just wanted to let 'em know, even at 4 a.m., that our groups haven't fallen apart just because they're moving this stuff in," said 29-year-old chemist Mickey Cashen, a leader of the group known as the Coalition for Survival. "We just want to make sure that they move this stuff out of here soon."
Coast Guard Capt. J. William Kime, who has supervised the containment and disposal operation at Sharptown since the hazardous chemicals were discovered there last summer, said today the chemicals would ramain at the General Services Administration depot at Curtis Bay only as long as it takes for the federal government to license an incinerator where the chemicals will be destroyed.
Two such incinerators are under construction, one at Deer Park, Tex., and a second at Eldorado, Ark. The earliest possible completion date for the Deer Park facility is April 1, Kime said. The Coast Guard disposal contract specifies that the Sharptown waste must be removed from Curtis Bay by next Jan. 1.
Shipments of this contaminated waste oil are expected to continue for 10 days to two weeks, until all 33,000 gallons of the oil containing PCB -- polychlorinated biphenyls, heat-resistant chemicals once widely used in electrical transformers -- have been removed from Sharptown.
At the same time, the Coast Guard is supervising the removal of 140,000 gallons of waste oil containing other contaminants, including the highly flammable solvent xylene.
"Right now, everything's going very well," Kime said as the removal work began.
The timetable for removing the chemicals has stretched out far longer than local, state and federal officials thought possible when their presence was first discovered.
Coast Guard officials, who have responsibility for preventing pollution of the nation's waterways, were first called in to determine the contents of the 34 tanks after the tank farm's original owner informed state officials that the tanks might contain hazardous materials. It was not until mid-October however -- several months after the first indication of trouble -- that the exact nature of the tanks' contents was determined.
While the tests were going on, two federal agencies were arguing about who would bear the responsibility for the disposal costs, which have now reached $500,000. That argument was settled when the Coast Guard commandant declared in early November that his agency would take charge.
The Coast Guard then embarked on a program to find a suitable site for the temporary storage of the chemicals. But when the Curtis Bay facility -- which already houses several hundred gallons of PCB-contaminated waste oils taken from a federal facility in Bladensburg -- was chosen to house the Sharptown wastes Curtis Bay residents protested vehemently.
They complained that their neighborhood, a heavily industrialized area in the northeastern corner of Anne Arundel County, had already been chosen as the site for two other hazardous waste disposal dumps.
"The fact is that federal and state governments had already lost their credibility with us at that point" said Cashen, who grew up in the neighborhood. "This was the straw that broke the camel's back."
Anne Arundel County officials, in particular County Executive Robert Pascal, heard their complaints and took immediate action to block the shipment of waste from Sharptown. County officials filed suit in state court against the proposed transfer and simultaneously passed ordinances giving the county control over the transportation and disposal of hazardous wastes within its boundaries.
Early this month a state Circuit Court judge overturned the county's ordinances and cleared the way for the chemicals to be stored at Curtis Bay. County efforts to get the state appeals courts to reverse this decision proved fruitless.
"Everybody knows the town has fought long and hard to get this stuff out of here," said Sharptown Mayor Cordrey. "Now all the 670 people here are looking as if they can't believe it's finally going."