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Year in Review 2019: Heron Park chemical spill: space still closed

Heron Park, formerly known as Berlin Falls Park, is closed indefinitely following a vote during a Berlin Town Council meeting. The park is closed while officials figure out other ways to pay for demolition costs.

By Rachel Ravina, Staff Writer

(Dec. 26, 2019) The spill of sodium hydroxide at Heron Park this year turned out to burn more than the grass around it — it was projected to burn through more than $280,000 by the time the cleanup of the caustic chemical could be completed.

The park, previously known as Berlin Falls Park, a former Tyson chicken processing plant, was closed after an undisclosed amount of sodium hydroxide (caustic soda or lye) was spilled in June during demolition work by a contractor.

“I think … this has been more complicated a bigger challenge than any of us foresaw,” said Mayor Gee WIlliams during a September interview.

Sodium hydroxide is extremely alkaline and can be used as an industrial cleaning agent, because it dissolves grease, fat and oils, while it is also used in the manufacture of paper.

Berlin officials said they learned of the incident around 11:45 a.m. on June 26 after a Facebook post began circulating about the spill, according to former Managing Director Jeff Fleetwood, who now serves as the town administrator.

Town staff contacted the town’s consulting firm, EA Engineering, Science and Technology Inc., Chesapeake Environmental Services and the Maryland Department of the Environment. Williams 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.”

The spill was located “adjacent to two ponds,” according to a statement from Williams. He said tests were done and “no chemicals were found” in the ponds.

While the circumstances of the spill were unclear and are still pending results of an investigation, Williams did confirm the spill happened at some point during the building’s demolition process.

“We’re very restricted in what we can say because of potential legal issues,” Williams said earlier in September.

Chesapeake Environmental Services handled the clean-up process, which cost more than $200,000. During a September interview with the Bayside Gazette discussing the matter, 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.”

The Maryland Department of the Environment and Environmental Protection Agency continued investigating the release of sodium hydroxide on park grounds.

Town officials first closed the park after receiving advice from the Worcester County Fire Marshal’s Office. At first, then-Town Administrator Laura Allen said that “we received clearance from the fire marshal to have the fireworks” on July 3 at the site on Old Ocean City Boulevard.”

Allen said she expected the park to be closed for roughly two to three weeks, but it ended up being shut down for more than one month.

The park reopened about six weeks later, for a short time.

In order to cover the extensive costs from the chemical spill, the town drew from its contingency fund and used the $150,000 previously set aside for park improvements.

Williams also said the town will have spent about $283,000 once everything is completed.

During a Sept. 23 meeting, the Town Council approved closing the park indefinitely. Councilman Dean Burrell was the sole dissenter in a 3-1 vote.

Williams informed staff, council members and residents during the same meeting that Goody Hill Groundwork could finish the remaining demolition if the town authorized up to $55,000 to pay for a series of projects.

Williams’ initiative was dismissed after receiving opposition from the pub- lic and some council members. When asked how it would be paid for, Williams suggested borrowing from another fund or from money set aside for a commu- nity center.

Fleetwood suggested releasing requests for proposals for a scaled-back version of the remaining demolition projects.

Fleetwood called Williams’ proposal a “high-end figure” that was “making a lot of assumptions for the unknowns.”

Fleetwood also clarified that “the unknowns” consisted of a scenario where underground piping could be discovered during the excavation process.

“I also want to emphasize that the discussion that evening about $55,000 … that was [a] worst-case scenario,” he said.

Fleetwood said officials planned to more of take a realistic approach by delegating some of the work to town staff. He added that they would remove some debris and “backfill” any existing holes with dirt.

Bids were due Nov. 20. Once staff open bids, the successful bidder would then go before the mayor and council. The exact meeting date is unclear.