Estimates put total bill in $280K range as work continues
By Rachel Ravina, Staff Writer
(Sept. 12, 2019) The bills associated with the clean-up of a caustic chemical at Heron Park continue to pile up.
Berlin Mayor Gee Williams said during Monday evening’s Town Council meeting that the town has spent $244,433 so far on “clean-up costs and related
expenses,” and that the total bill will be between $282,000 and $283,000 when all work is completed.
The mayor and council have authorized several invoices to Chesapeake Environmental Services in the two months since the spill of an undetermined amount of sodium hydroxide 50 percent (caustic soda or lye). The chemical has a pH level of 13, which is higher than a neutral pH level of 7.
To pay for it, the town will draw from the contingency fund in the fiscal year 2020 general budget, Williams said during an interview last Friday. He also said that the $150,000 previously set aside for park improvements was reallocated to pay for clean-up efforts.
“Certainly this isn’t what we had in mind. That eliminated all that,” Williams said.
He added that other capital expenses might need to be postponed.
Town officials said they learned of the spill around 11:45 a.m. on June 26.
The spill was located “adjacent to two ponds,” according to a July statement from Williams. He said tests were done and “no chemicals were found” in the ponds.
Williams added that a chain link fence, silt fencing and an absorbent buffer were installed around the spill site following the chemical removal.
Chesapeake Environmental Services and the Worcester County Fire Marshal’s Office advised the town to close the park during the clean-up process that lasted roughly six weeks. The park reopened last Wednesday morning.
Maryland Department of the Environment and Environmental Protection Agency are handling the investigation of the spill at the facility on Old Ocean City Boulevard.
Williams said he has yet to receive any findings, but hopes to by this fall. “So as far as I’m concerned, I’d be happy to have it [the investigation] all done today … but realistically it may be weeks or months,” he said.
When asked about the circumstances leading up to the situation, Williams declined to comment.
“Not at this time, and that’s because I don’t want to put anybody who is related to this in any kind of legal jeopardy. Potential legal jeopardy,” he said.
However, Williams did appear to take ownership of the incident.
“It doesn’t matter if we knew or not,” Williams said. “We’re still responsible for cleaning it up and suffering the consequences.”
Williams acknowledged that had the town conducted a building-by- building investigation, they might have found the chemicals before the incident occurred and removed them for a fraction of the cost.
“I mean there’s just no comparison,” Williams said.
While the circumstances of the spill are unclear and are still pending results of an investigation, Williams did confirm the spill happened at some point during the building’s demolition process.
He also said the town was made aware of the incident when the liquid “found its way into the soil” and “gathered into a small pool.”
Williams said called the clean-up process “discouraging” and said that its somewhat uncharted territory for the Town of Berlin.
“We’ve never handled anything like this before,” he said. “It’s not like it’s something we do all the time or even regularly.”
Nevertheless, Williams said it’s crucial that the town presses on.
“Now we’re going to learn from it,” he said. “This is something, cleaning up a former poultry processing plant is not something you go to workshop. You learn by doing.”
Although this incident appeared to be a setback for the property, Williams said he plans to apply for state grants to continue with the demolition process.
“The timeline is pushed back, and I really can’t project until we get through this what comes next,” he said. “You can’t even get there.”
Williams said he also relies heavily on the opinions of the advisory committee and the public. He added that he hopes to find effective ways to use the park for public, private or collaborative purposes.
“I think … this has been more complicated a bigger challenge than any of us foresaw,” he said.