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At casino site, roiling on the river

Mike Finck may not have been born on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, but he talks proudly of spending his earliest days there.

From a cove in the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, Mike Finck watches heavy machinery prepare the site where an eight-story parking garage will soon be built as part of the planned Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

During that hot Baltimore summer 56 years ago, Finck’s parents used the breeze coming off the water to cool their June baby from their boat in a South Baltimore marina. Named for a legendary Old West riverboat captain, Finck has loved the Patapsco and its lush, marshy environs his entire life.

That’s why he said he recently joined two of several legal challenges prepared this spring that could halt construction of Baltimore’s casino.

While casino executives and city and state elected officials are readying for a ceremonial groundbreaking Wednesday at the site just off Russell Street, the legal challenges raise environmental concerns against the construction of the $400 million Horseshoe Baltimore facility on a long-contaminated plot.

It’s a classic case of “David versus Goliath,” Finck said, as Las Vegas-based Caesars Entertainment Corp. moves forward with plans for its latest gambling parlor amid protests by local residents.

At least some of the legal actions are being funded by an anonymous source with deep pockets. But Finck, a recreational seaman and maintenance worker at Wal-Mart in South Baltimore, doesn’t seek money. He says he just wants to protect the river.

“I don’t care what they build there,” Finck said Tuesday. “They could build the Taj Mahal, as long as they clean up the land.”

Last week, city officials granted a zoning variance for outdoor entertainment space at the future casino, and most building permits have already been granted by the city. Workers from Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. have broken ground and started grading the site where the 335,000-square-foot gambling emporium and 4,000-space parking garage will soon be built.

Tuesday morning in the rain, Finck eyed the construction machinery moving dirt and breaking rock at the waterfront parcel where the eight-story parking garage is planned to rise up to greet passersby on Interstate 95. He is certain there are chemicals in that soil — chemicals now being washed into three finger-streams that extend from the Middle Branch, then into the Patapsco River, he said as he looked out over one of the coves.

Water and soil samples performed in April for a private environmental group, the Inner Harbor Stewardship Foundation, showed contamination, the group’s Annapolis-based attorney, Tim Henderson, said Tuesday.

That was the subject of a letter Henderson sent to Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on April 15 requesting that further soil and water samples be taken at the city’s direction. The nonprofit stewardship foundation offered to pay for the tests, Henderson said.

The future casino site was once home of the Maryland Chemical Co., and the Maryland Department of the Environment previously said arsenic, chromium and tetrachloroethylene are present in the soil.

Samantha Kappalman, a spokeswoman for MDE, acknowledged the soil was contaminated but said groundwater was not an issue.

“There will be a cap on the soil,” Kappalman said. More detailed information was not available, she said, because MDE’s manager for the project could not be reached.

Finck, who says he knows the area like the back of his hand, still sees cause for concern.

“There was no regulations when they had all that land there in the 1960s,” Finck said, fearing that years of chemical waste flushed into the Middle Branch would eliminate wildlife in a stretch of water that he says has undergone a remarkable resurgence.

“I’m upset about it,” he said. “It seems more and more and more, they’re further away from doing anything.”

G. Macy Nelson, a Towson-based lawyer who is representing Finck and three other plaintiffs in two separate actions, said Tuesday MDE has not been comprehensive enough in its monitoring of the future city casino site.

A 2011 public meeting was held by state officials about the environmental issues at the site, and MDE issued two response action plans afterward, one of which was recently updated and amended.

But the plans were issued when there was a different licensee planning to build the casino and does not address all the issues, Nelson said.

“For reasons unexplained, MDE is not interested in addressing the contaminated soil and ground water,” Nelson said. “It’s as if they have their blinders on. Their position seems to be, ‘Let’s make the top of the site impermeable so that no one is exposed to the top of the site,’ and they are ignoring the contaminated ground water that is indisputably flowing to the Middle Branch.”

On April 19, Nelson filed a notice of intent with Rawlings-Blake and other city, MDE officials and federal regulators, advising them of his plan to file a federal lawsuit charging violations of the Clean Water Act. He said that lawsuit will be filed by mid-June if the city does not order a halt to what Nelson said is routine discharge of contaminated soil into the Middle Branch.

That is in addition to the lawsuit Nelson filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court on behalf of Finck and another city taxpayer, stating that the runoff from the casino site is contaminating the Middle Branch.

When asked who is paying his legal fees, Nelson, of the Law Office of G. Macy Nelson LLC, said it was nobody’s business “but mine and my clients.”

Henderson, too, has filed a notice of intent to sue in federal court under the Federal Resource Conservation Recovery Act, he said Tuesday.

Baltimore City Solicitor George Nilson said Tuesday he is aware of all the planned and pending actions.

“None of them that we have seen so far has any merit,” Nilson said. “We are responding to them one by one.”

The casino’s construction is a priority for city officials, who boast that it will attract about 1,500 new jobs to the city as well as millions in projected revenues.

“It would be foolish for us to just stop in our tracks while we wait for the lawsuits to play out,” Nilson said of the possibility of delays.

A spokesman for CBAC Gaming LLC — the local group led by Caesars Entertainment Corp. that is licensed to run Baltimore’s casino — declined to discuss how the lawsuits could impact construction, citing a company policy against commenting on open litigation.

Finck fears that unless he successfully persuades the casino and the city to clean up the construction site, conditions on the water will deteriorate to the level they were at in the 1980s, when he says the Middle Branch was “dead.”

Now, when he cruises around in the 13-foot boat he’s named Bree (for his granddaughter), he sees beaver, fox, blue heron and scores of fish including white perch, yellow perch, catfish, eel and rockfish.

“I feel sorry for the poor rockfish and the other fish out there,” he said.