Mill Hill community waits to settle scrap yard issue

January 17, 1995|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Sun Staff Writer

By now, the Southwest Baltimore residents of Mill Hill thought they would be rid of the explosions and the filth from the automobile scrap yard in their back yard.

But nearly two years after the United Iron and Metal Co. signed a consent order promising to make changes to reduce air and noise pollution in its yard, little has been done, say neighbors and government officials.

Occasional explosions from erupting gas tanks still rock houses and rattle windows.

Blue air and pieces of "fluff" from shredded automobile upholstery still float into their yards. And neighbors still hear the daily crunching sounds from smashing cars.

"It is not any better," said Diane Huffman, a close neighbor of the yard.

"In fact, they had one explosion recently that was so bad, I went home and found the dog had pulled the handle off the back door trying to get into the house," she said.

The 18-acre scrap yard, located behind the 2600 block of Wilkens Ave. -- the city's longest block of rowhouses -- has been a source of irritation since the 1950s.

"It's a menace," said Carol Rimkevicius, who has fought the scrap yard for more than 10 years as president of the Mill Hill Improvement Association.

But in March 1993, neighbors found hope that they would finally see a reduction of the air and noise pollution coming from the scrap yard.

The company signed a consent order with the Maryland Department of the Environment promising to install a new machine, called a wet shredder, by Sept. 30, 1994, to reduce air and noise pollution as junked cars are compacted. If the shredder was not installed on time, said the consent order, the company could be fined $750 a day.

Four months after the deadline, the shredder has not been installed. And the state has yet to fine United Iron and Metal.

State environmental officials say a loophole in their order allows the company to delay indefinitely the shredder's installation if United Iron and Metal has not obtained permits from the city.

The company needs a conditional use permit from the city's Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, but hasn't applied for one. City officials advised United Iron and Metal to delay its permit application until the company could reach a consensus with the community on a larger plan to redesign the scrap yard.

L The loophole has left the state and city blaming each other.

And the residents say they are the ones literally left in the dust.

"It puts the community in a no-win situation," said Denise Duval, a lawyer for the residents.

"If the city blames the state and the state blames the city, who suffers? The community. From the community's perspective the consent order is flawed because it depends on the permits," said Ms. Duval.

Al Barry, the city's assistant planning director, said the city had hoped for a larger solution.

"For over two years, we've been trying to encourage United Iron and Metal to make wholesale improvements to the property to address long-standing complaints from the community," he said.

Mr. Barry criticized the state for not first consulting with the city before writing the consent order that he too now sees as flawed because it gives no deadline for obtaining city permits for the new machinery.

Frank Courtright, the state's administrator of the air quality enforcement program, defended the consent order, calling the September 1994 date "a target date" that should not be considered a firm deadline.

Nevertheless, he said, "We never anticipated it would take this long."

A lawyer for United Iron and Metal did not respond to repeated calls for comment.

For the community, the delay is irritating, but not surprising.

"They've been notoriously delaying for over 20 years on everything. That's their favorite tactic -- delay," said Mary Bontempo, president of the St. Benedict Housing Council and a resident of Mill Hill.

Several months ago, Ms. Bontempo drove to Cincinnati to United Iron and Metal's parent company -- the David J. Joseph Co. -- to observe a "wet shredder" in operation.

Although she was not allowed on the property, she watched the shredder smash cars from outside and found, "it was difficult to see and breathe, and your throat burned. It may have reduced explosions but it doesn't have any effect on control of particulate [airborne bits of shredded car parts] matter."

Ms. Bontempo and neighbor Diane Huffman are among several plaintiffs in a civil suit filed against United Iron and Metal two years ago. The suit, filed in Baltimore Circuit Court, claims the homeowners have suffered mental and physical problems as well as damage to their homes because they live so close to the car-shredding operation. The suit seeks $40 million in damages.

Efforts to settle the suit out of court have been unsuccessful, said Ms. Bontempo. The case is scheduled to go to trial Feb. 27.

City officials and Ms. Duval have tried unsuccessfully to persuade United Iron and Metal to make several changes to its property to accommodate the community.

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