Concerns About Proposed Currency Production Facility in Beltsville
Updated: May 27, 2022
The following article was written by Maureen Fine, Vijay Parameshwaran, and Kiki Theodoropoulos; the authors are a part of Save BARC, a grassroots group of local residents organized around protecting the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center from destructive development, and encouraging renewed investment to make it a center of sustainable agricultural research in the United States.
In Beltsville, 100+ acres of federal land are being threatened by development. The U.S. Department of the Treasury plans to relocate its Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s (BEP) currency production facility to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC). BARC’s 6,500-acre green space in Northern Prince George's County is part of a "green corridor" that includes Greenbelt Park, the Greenbelt Forest Preserve, and the Patuxent Research Refuge. This corridor forms the largest contiguous stretch of forest land on the East Coast from Boston to Richmond. According to BARC’s website, its research mission includes providing the American public with “healthy crops and animals, clean and renewable natural resources, sustainable agricultural systems, and agricultural commodities and products that are abundant, high-quality, and safe.” The proposed currency production facility does not share the goals that further BARC’s mission. Moreover, its construction at BARC contradicts President Biden’s 30x30 vision to conserve nature, as well as the best practices outlined in the Maryland, Prince George’s County, and other regional climate action plans.
As federal land, BARC is under constant scrutiny for development opportunities, either with new government buildings or private projects. However, building BEP’s proposed facility on the BARC green space has grave environmental and ecological implications. According to BEP’s final environmental impact statement (EIS), the proposed facility is to be built as a sprawling, single-level, 1 million square foot structure, making it one of the largest buildings to be located on BARC. The entire facility complex is proposed to create a massive ecological footprint of 122 acres. Building this complex would increase impervious surfaces on the site and will further increase stormwater runoff and heat island effect.
The impact of this complex on the surrounding communities would involve more than the building and increased runoff. It also would involve the vehicle-miles traveled associated with commuting and deliveries once the facility is in operation and during construction. BEP’s final environmental impact statement (EIS) states that there would be an estimated 7,278 dump truck trips over the entirety of the construction period. Because of the decreased accessibility of the proposed facility to public transit compared to the BEP facility in Washington, D.C., the number of employees driving personal vehicles would increase, with almost 1,300 more cars on the road in Beltsville daily. In addition, approximately 82 heavy duty diesel trucks, including semis, would arrive at and depart from the proposed facility weekly for shipments and deliveries, adding to the carbon dioxide emissions. While the final EIS discusses the adverse impact on roadways due to an increase in traffic from commuters and diesel trucks, including long queues at most of the 15 intersections studied, there is no discussion of how the increase in traffic may affect air quality from additional car and truck exhaust, only the observation that vehicular traffic will significantly impact the region of influence.
The air quality near the site of the proposed facility is already being assessed by Maryland Department of the Environment air monitors. These monitors, located in Beltsville, measure concentrations of criteria pollutants and hazardous air pollutants, which can be harmful to public health and the environment. These monitors show that in 2019 the area near the site of the proposed facility already exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards for ground-level ozone (annual fourth-highest daily maximum 3-year average). Ground-level ozone is created when pollutants emitted by cars, for example, chemically react in the presence of sunlight. People most at risk from breathing air containing ozone include those with asthma, children, older adults, and people who are active outdoors, especially outdoor workers. The impact of the increased traffic on air quality also will be accelerated because most of the specimen trees (e.g., trees 30 inches or greater in diameter at chest height) on the site are to be cut down, contributing to the degradation of local air quality.
In addition to the risk the proposed facility presents to air quality is the risk to water quality. Of the six wetlands on the BARC site, two are to be filled and destroyed. Also, water from Beaverdam and Indian Creeks would be significantly affected. Importantly, Beaverdam is designated as a Tier II waterway, meaning its quality is substantially better than the minimum Maryland requirements. The operation of the proposed facility would produce approximately 120,000 gallons per day of wastewater from the currency production process that, according to the final EIS, would be discharged to the BARC East sanitary sewer system. The wastewater would then be subjected to some level of separation and treatment before being discharged to a tributary of Beaverdam Creek, eventually reaching the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, and then the Chesapeake Bay.
Because currency production depends on chemical processes, the project essentially locates an industrial facility with a chemical plant on a site largely consisting of forest, wetland, and open meadow. The chemicals BEP has reported using in currency production range from metals and sulfuric acid to castor oil, solvents, and caustic soda, which when combined pose significant health and toxicity hazards to human health and the environment if not handled properly. The final EIS for this proposed facility does not sufficiently address operational controls for the disposal of these chemicals or the wastewater produced. Without appropriate handling and controls, the water from Beaverdam and Indian Creeks could be contaminated from these chemicals. BEP's facilities in both Washington, D.C., and Fort Worth, Texas, have been previously cited by the EPA for chemical waste disposal and air violations, creating a worrying precedent.
So where are we now? On October 8, 2021, the Acting Assistant Secretary for Management, U.S. Department of the Treasury, signed the record of decision for the proposed facility. This decision is one in a series of troubling events leading to development in the green corridor that includes BARC. Recently, 105 acres of mostly-forested NASA-owned property in Northern Prince George’s County, which was due to be sold, most likely for private development, received a 3-year reprieve after protests from conservationists, who argued that the federal government should be preserving rather than selling the land. Forested land soaks up rainfall, filtering out pollutants from flowing into bodies of water, and its trees absorb climate-warming carbon dioxide, making such land vital for human health in nearby communities. Although reprieved, the NASA property has not yet received full protection from development. Other projects, such as the proposed Baltimore-Washington SCMaglev, threaten the destruction of the green corridor through the construction of the rail line and its approximately 200-acre train maintenance facility.
The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) should be informed about the hazards of this proposed facility and possible alternative locations for siting. The NCPC is to hold a hearing on the project in Fall 2022 and solicit public comments. Please consider providing your comments. More details can be found at https://www.ncpc.gov.