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Geologist tests soil at old chemical plant site

May 06, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Geologist Gary Riehle wore white overalls, a yellow helmet and rubber boots for safety Tuesday as he cut open a plastic sheath that revealed what appeared to be just dirt.

Whether the soil is harmless remains to be determined.

"You really can't (sense problems) 'til you send it into the lab," Riehle said.

The columns of dirt Riehle and another worker pulled out of the ground Tuesday came from the 19 acres of land in Hagerstown's West End that once housed the Central Chemical fertilizer and pesticide plant along Mitchell Avenue.

The plant ceased operations in the mid-1980s. Soon after, concerns arose about chemicals buried under the soil that could contaminate ground water that feeds into Antietam Creek, said Bill Murray, Riehle's supervisor.

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The site was placed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's list of Superfund sites in 1997.

Riehle's work Tuesday was part of the ongoing process to determine the extent of the chemical contamination at the site and, eventually, how to clean it up.

The dirt samples being pulled out of the ground Tuesday were in the shape of the metal rods used to gather them. The hollow rods, which contained plastic sheaths, were rammed into the ground and removed, pulling dirt with them.

The first thing Riehle does with his dirt samples is slice them into sections. Then he looks at them, smells for any strange odors and passes an electronic sensor over them, making notes on his metal clipboard.

To decide where the samples come from, Riehle refers to a map of the site that shows him how many samples to take and at what depth.

By the end of this month, Riehle and a geologist hired by the EPA to double check Riehle's work will have collected about 200 dirt samples, Murray said.

The samples are put into glass jars, refrigerated and shipped to independent labs to be tested for chemicals, including the pesticide DDT, certain fertilizers and other chemicals.

Previous studies have shown that contaminants there also include arsenic, lead and mercury.

The information being collected this week will be combined with well water tests and eventually will be put into the form of a report submitted to the EPA, Murray said. He said that report likely would be complete by December.

Then the 14 companies paying for the site investigation - including Central Chemical - will begin a feasibility study that will result in recommendations on how to clean the site, Murray said. It will be years before anything is built there, he said.

Ron Price, 62, lives in a house on Matthew Court not far from a field that once was a dumping ground for chemical runoff.

"I'm not concerned" about the contamination, Price said Wednesday.

Price said his only concern now is "about what they decide to build back there" when the cleanup is over.

"They could put something in there that would hurt us more than the chemicals," he said.

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