A plan to create the largest dump site for hazardous waste in Maryland -- in Prince George's County southwest of Laurel -- has been drawn up by a New York-based firm.
The proposal -- which requires a permit from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources hazardous waste division and the approval of Prince George's county -- would route from 16 to 32 truckloads daily of potentially hazardous chromium ore from Baltimore's Allied Chemical Corp. plant to a treatment facility along Old Gunpowder Road.
There the residue from the ore used to extract commercially usable chromium would be chemically treated with ferrisol and caustic acids in an effort to neutralize its toxicity. The ore, which contains other potentially dangerous heavy metals such as zinc, lead and copper, would be shipped to a permanent dump site about one mile south of Laurel Senior High School, near the junction of Contee and Van Dusen roads.
If the plan passes a strict safety examination by the hazardous wastes permit division, the department will make a general announcement soliciting public comment on the proposal. Public hearings are not mandatory, however.
The plan is the brainstorm of Aaron Williams, an entrepreneur from New York who could "easily make a million dollars" on the venture, according to a natural resources department official.
If Williams is granted the permits necessary for the Laurel sites, he may be able to take away a lucrative waste disposal contract from Browning-Ferris, one of the nation's leading hazardous waste disposal firms.
Browning-Ferris currently handles Allied Chemical chromium wastes by hauling them to the Browning-Ferris landfill site on Solley Road in Anne Arundel County. That tract of land is nearing capacity, a situation that has led to environmental problems in recent months.
Last week the Maryland Environmental Health Administration cracked down on the Solley Road management for disregarding safety procedures. Open trucks, some of which oozed greenish chromium waste, sloshed the substance along roads and onto residential property in the area, according to the natural resources department. The firm was given a week to clean up.
Norman Cohen, an environmental affairs adviser with Browning-Ferris, declined comment on the cleanup order. Cohen and other Browning-Ferris officials said at this point they do not plan to seek another site to replace the Solley Road facility.
Meanwhile Williams, owner of Disposal Managment Inc., has submitted a waste disposal proposal that includes plans to use sealed trucks for transport. w
Other aspects of the plan were deemed inadequate by the hazardous wastes permits division, however. Richard A. Steimel, director of the division, said he told Williams to "get a consultant" who knew what he was doing and resubmit a plan and a request for a permit.
Williams since has hired Nassaux-Hemsley, a Chambersburg, Pa., consulting firm that has successfully designed more than 20 hazardous waste sites in that state.
Williams expects to submit a revised plan within three to five weeks, and said he believes he will be granted the permit within two months.
"The danger (from chromium ore) comes from leaching -- from rain falling on untreated chromium ore and that substance leaking into the water system," explained Nassaux-Hemsley's Ralph Matter, chief project engineer for the Laurel proposal. The consultant added: "But if our plans are followed correctly, there is no danger whatsoever."
Chrome is safe in its solid state. When mixed with water, a yellowish or greenish substance called "hexavalent chromium" is created. According to Steimel, test rats given water containing hexavalent chromium have developed cancer.
The National Institute of Occupation Safety and Health has released a report indicating that the substance is carcinogenic -- cancer-causing -- in a hexavalent form. It is also considered an allergen.
"This is a substance that can cause cancer in the repiratory tract," said Tom Conry of the Environmental Action Foundation's toxic clearinghouse. "It can also cause an allergic condition on the skin, even in low concentration. It must be handled very, very carefully."
Chromium is used by photo engravers, textile workers, welders and electroplaters, Conry said, and sometimes the safeguards "aren't enough."
The hexavalent Chromium that is to be sent to the Laurel treatment facility is considered nonstable. When in prolonged contact with the air, however, it dries and becomes a more stable substance -- and one that is considered less toxic and less carcinogenic than in the form of a solution.
"At best, the Laurel plan is a dangerous operation," Steimel said. "We're going to take a long, long look at everything that is being proposed here to make sure it is done right."
When the public notice is issued, Steimel said, he expected a public out-cry against the proposal -- both from residents in nearby Laurel and from Beltsville, three miles to the south.
"If this were proposed where I live, I would be writing my congressman and senators," he admitted.
However, community protest is not enough to force the state agency to conduct a public hearing, Steimel said.
"If safety requirements are met, and the public cannot show us (through letters in response to the public notice) that there would be a danger that we had not considered, then we would not be forced to even conduct a public hearing," he said." We'd never get anything done if we responded to the fears of a community."
After gaining approval from the state, the project will face an uphill battle to win a go-ahead from the Prince George's County Department of Public Works and Transportation.
Robert Fletcher, the chief planning engineer at the department, said it is "theoretically possible" for the site operators to gain approval from the county, but "based on the information I have seen, it isn't likely."
Fletcher said the area was comprised of porous gravel and stone, and the hexavalent chromium solution could "easily" seep into the water system.
He said he was unaware that Disposal Management had hired a professional consulting firm to design the hazardous waste-holding pit -- including in its plan a clay-lined basin that would generally meet the safety standards required by the county.
"All I have seen was a reference copy of the first plan," Fletcher said, adding that he knew that had been rejected by the state. "I'm kind of surprised that they are back on track with this."
Vaughn Barkdall, director of the county public works department, said, "nothing at all has reached my desk on this."
The problems associated with hazardous waste disposal in Maryland are relatively new.
For years, a number of sites -- many still undocumented in the Hazardous wastes permit division -- handled toxic refuse. In 1977, the state passed a landmark proposal regulating toxic and hazardous waste sites.
Since that time, 185 requests have been made for permits, and many have been granted. In Prince George's and Montgomery countries, there are 31 sites permitted or for which permits have been requested. Most are incinerator sites, such as those found at hospitals and research centers, to burn away toxic residues. In many of these cases, the incinerator system must also comply with clean air laws.
Nassaux-Hemsly's Matter, the engineer working on the Laurel project, believes that public attention to hazardous waste storage has helped immensely.
"This is an industry that does not like to have a negative public image," he said. "Let's not get into any misunderstandings about hazardous or toxic wastes. If careful guidelines are followed, if plans are executed, if the sites are properly managed -- well, someday they're going to be able to come back to these sites and be able to reclaim the minerals in these wastes and put them to use."