WASHINGTON – The secret to decontaminating one of the most polluted sites in Maryland could be sitting in kitchens across the state.
The Environmental Protection Agency is considering a plan to inject molasses about 150 underground at a former open dump in Baltimore, in an effort to decontaminate polluted groundwater there.
The idea is that molasses — the thick syrup that comes from refining sugar — spurs the growth of one type of bacteria, which in turn creates conditions for other bacteria that can eat contaminants such as cancer-causing volatile organic compounds in the groundwater.
“It’s kind of the new thinking about how we can do things better and more cost effectively,” said Chris Corbett, remedial project manager for Kane and Lombard Street Drum, the site being considered for the molasses treatment.
He said it will be at least two years before the molasses project can begin at Kane and Lombard. But it would not be the first Superfund site to use such a process — nor would it be the first common kitchen product to be used for cleanup.
EPA officials say molasses works well because it is a carbon source, but other carbon sources such as honey and food-grade oils have been used to do similar groundwater cleanups across the country.
“Anything that bacteria can eat is viable and the gist is that you don’t want to put anything into the ground that is actually harmful,” said Bruce Rundell, a hydrogeologist at EPA.
The molasses technique is also being considered at another Superfund site in the state, Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County, though plans are not as far along.
Kane and Lombard was put on the federal government’s Superfund list of the nation’s most contaminated sites in 1986. The site, near Interstate 95, has since been converted to a golf course.
Corbett said the molasses method is projected to cost $7.3 million, compared to about $20 million for traditional treatment that would have required installing an elaborate system of pipes to pump water out and decontaminate it above ground. Besides costing more, the traditional method would have required shutting down part of I-95 for installation.
The molasses is expected to take 50 to 75 years to completely decontaminate the site, but EPA officials said the traditional pump method could take just as long.
Officials said the molasses method already appears to be working at a Superfund site in Pennsylvania, where molasses was injected into the ground last year. Since then, methane levels at the Saegertown Industrial Area have gone up, an indication that contaminants are being broken down by bacteria at the site, said remedial project manager Mitch Cron.
“Based on what I’ve seen to date this appears to be working,” he said. Cleanup of the Saegertown is expected to take about 10 years, but the contaminated groundwater plume there is much smaller than at Kane and Lombard.
Bob Nozeika, a neighbor of Kane and Lombard site, said he worries about the speed of the molasses cleanup process. Nozeika is president of the nearby Eastwood Community Civic Association.
“I’m going to have to trust their judgment that this is the best way to go,” said Nozeika, who attended an EPA presentation on the process last year. “I don’t know that they’ve actually sold me on it.”
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