Gasoline in soil hampers work in Metro tunnel

December 13, 1990|By Doug Birch

It was reported incorrectly in The Sun yesterday that the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health agency was testing the blood of tunnel workers on the new Baltimore Metro extension for the presence of benzene. The agency is actually testing the air in the tunnels.

Subway construction crews in East Baltimore, who halted work for more than a week in November after a tunneling mishap opened a crater on Orleans Street, have struck soil so contaminated with gasoline that some workers must use air tanks and the rest must wear breathing filters.

Michael Sullivan, a spokesman for the state Department of the Environment, said yesterday that work crews for the contractor, Kiewit-Shea Joint Venture, have removed about 30 tons of the gasoline-tainted soil since the problem was first noticed three weeks ago.


Mr. Sullivan said tests showed that the gasoline, concentrated between 35 feet and 40 feet underground in the sandy soil, probably resulted from a spill more than 15 years ago.

Because the fumes were growing worse, tunnel workers were ordered to wear the breathing apparatus in a Dec. 7 memo from Kiewit-Shea.

That memo reported that "a high level of gasoline" had been found in the outbound, or southern, one of the twin tunnels being dug from Johns Hopkins Hospital to Charles Center. Lower levels were found in the inbound or northern tunnel.

Environmental officials, Mr. Sullivan said, suspect the fuel came from a leaking underground storage tank at a service station that once occupied the southwest corner of the intersection of Orleans Street and Broadway. A fast-food chicken franchise now stands on the site.

Health officials are most concerned about levels of benzene, a component of gasoline and a suspected carcinogen, in the tunnel air.

Jacqueline Lampell, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Occupational Safety agency, said that an industrial hygienist was testing the blood of tunnel workers for the presence of benzene but that the results were not yet in.

Helen L. Dale, a spokeswoman for the state Mass Transit Administration, said no illnesses have been linked so far to the gasoline fumes.

The wife of one worker, who declined to further identify herself, said she fears that her husband may have been affected by working in the fumes before he was given breathing equipment. "He's been tired and listless and sleeping more than usual, and his nails are blue," she said. She said workers on the site have smelled the fumes for two months.

In its memo, Kiewit-Shea officials said the problem of gasoline fumes should be limited to 100 or 200 feet of tunnel.

Jim Maher, business agent for Laborers Local 516, which represents the workers, said that tests of the air in the tunnels so far have shown a "nil" benzene level. Kiewit-Shea, he said, is "doing everything to make it right" though, he added, some of the miners are balking at wearing the awkward breathing equipment.

Three shifts are working on the tunnels around the clock, with about a dozen workers on each shift.

Ms. Dale of the MTA said the gasoline problem was not expected to cause any delay in the construction project. The 1.5-mile addition to the Metro line is scheduled for completion in 1994.

She added that she was not sure what impact, if any, the discovery of the contaminated soil and its removal would have on the cost of the $321 million project.

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