Dundalk residents awoke yesterday morning to a fine mess: (( oily black soot covering their cars, yards and houses. They spent much of the day trying to wash it off.
The mysterious soot probably came from a malfunctioning industrial boiler, state environmental officials said, but that had not determined the location of such a source.
"I've lived in Dundalk all my life, and we're used to red soot on our cars," said Michael A. Miller. "But I've never seen anything like this." Mr. Miller suspected Bethlehem Steel at nearby Sparrows Point but a Bethlehem spokesman said he could not verify this.
Dorothy Schlaile said she first noticed the soot at 8 a.m., but some early-rising neighbors saw it as early as 4 a.m. She also found two pieces of black, sooty matter about 2 inches square on her front porch. "It looks like burnt rubber tires," she said.
An investigator from the Maryland Department of the Environment, interviewed concerned residents and collected samples of the soot that will be analyzed this week.
"It would appear to be some sort of boiler soot from a boiler that was not operating properly," said department spokesman John Goheen, adding that it was most likely a very large boiler, based on the wide area covered by the soot.
Mr. Goheen would not speculate where the soot came from. Investigators will spend the next few days interviewing residents, studying climatic conditions to determine what direction the wind was blowing and analyzing the samples to determine the composition of the soot.
If they are able to determine where the soot came from, the polluter could be subject to a $10,000 per day civil penalty for air pollution, Mr. Goheen said.
"We're going to have our work cut out for us next week," he said.
The particles were too large to be inhaled, and therefore posed no health threat to humans, Mr. Goheen said. "But they are a total nuisance when you go out to your car and find them all over."
Much of the oily soot landed in waterways, but Mr. Goheen played down the environmental threat. "As far as any damage to aquatic life or water quality from something like this, you wouldn't expect that," he said.
Yesterday, residents of Dundalk had a big chore. People trying to wash their cars found that the oily soot would not come off easily. Mrs. Schlaile said her husband tried to wash off their porch and sidewalk, but the wind blew more soot off the roof and soiled everything again.
And Mr. Miller would like to know who is going to pay to clean his carpets, which were soiled when his dog tracked the soot into the house.