120 children evacuated when gas vapors rise from subway excavation Day-care center closes, but any hazard is doubted

September 25, 1992|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Gasoline fumes forced out of the ground by subway excavation caused a Baltimore day-care center to evacuate 120 children and shut down early yesterday afternoon.

The incident marked at least the fourth time over the past year that gasoline vapors have presented a problem for the $321 million subway project that will eventually connect Metro's Charles Center station with Johns Hopkins Hospital 1.5 miles east. Mass Transit Administration officials insisted that the fumes were not concentrated enough to be a health or safety hazard, but the gasoline odor was pronounced. Evacuating the Jonestown Day Care Center at the corner of East Baltimore and High streets near the Shot Tower was merely a precaution, they said.

"We've had the smell of gasoline in other buildings in Jonestown, and we've generally been able to keep it under control, but we were particularly concerned about a day-care center," said Peter J. Schmidt, MTA's assistant general manager for development.

Last April, 1,200 city workers in the Charles L. Benton Jr. Building were sent home early because of gasoline fumes. Subway excavation lead to similar incidents near Johns Hopkins Hospital and nearby Washington Hill.

Each time, the problem has been the same. Compressed air inside the tunnels leaks out, causing gasoline or some other petroleum product floating on ground water to migrate into the basements of homes or businesses.

Subway workers use compressed air to keep ground water from entering their tunnels as they excavate.

The gasoline was most likely left in the ground by spills or leaking underground storage tanks years ago. The subway's worst experience came in late 1990, when tunneling was suspended after crews ran into gasoline saturated sand at the site of a former gasoline station.

That, and some machinery problems, caused work to be delayed for 10 months and added $20 million to the subway project's cost.

The MTA has completed about three-quarters of the excavation for the subway extension overall. The problem in Jonestown is apparently coming from mining of the inbound tunnel -- the more northerly of the twin tunnels.

Workers are digging east to west near the intersection of East Broadway and North Exeter Street in the inbound tunnel. Work on the outbound tunnel is about 1,000 feet behind them. The exact source of the gasoline is not known.

Jonestown Day Care Center Director E. Ann Harris Lofton said she could smell the fumes the moment she opened up the building at 7 a.m. Her children, who range in age from 2 to 12, spent most of the morning on a scheduled field trip to the Baltimore Arena to see "Sesame Street Live" before they were dismissed at 1 p.m.

Workers contracted by the MTA drilled shallow wells at intervals along East Baltimore Street to vent the fumes. City firefighters set up exhaust fans on the day-care center's first floor to expel the fumes there.

"The smell is like being in a gas station when you first pull up," said Ms. Lofton. "It's a very strong odor."

The day-care center caters primarily to low-income families and leases its building from the city.

Ms. Lofton said she is talking with MTA officials about setting up a temporary home for the center elsewhere. The private, non-profit facility is not scheduled to open this morning. The shutdown puts the center's 16 employees temporarily out of work and leaves parents scrambling to find day-care alternatives.

Dawna Fountain of Woodlawn said yesterday she had to go home early to take care of her 3-year-old daughter, Dawniqua, whom she normally drops off at the center while she's attending cosmetology school downtown.

"I'll have to stay home with her," Ms. Fountain said. "I didn't know there was going to be a gas leak."

Mr. Schmidt of the MTA said technicians found evidence yesterday of airborne hydrocarbons in the day-care center of as much as 38 parts per million. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration limits on-the-job exposure to 300 parts per million.

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