Pickle in a Barrel

June 30, 1995

When is an empty steel barrel safe to use as a trash can? No, this isn't a riddle posed by the arch-enemy in the new Batman movie. It's the quandary that faced Carroll County's Bureau of Land Management.

The bureau recycled 55-gallon drums that previously contained highway paint as trash barrels for Freedom Park in South Carroll and immediately was criticized for possibly endangering public health. Saving public dollars is a good idea and so is recycling empty steel drums. Carroll's land management bureau likes to use these barrels as trash receptacles because they are cheap and people don't steal them. If the county were to buy similar-sized trash containers, it could cost as much as $700 apiece.

But the problem seems to be that these empty barrels still had hazardous materials warnings on them when they were placed around the park, a popular baseball venue. The presence of the hazardous material labels was enough to prompt a Sykesville resident to call the Maryland Department of the Environment's emergency response team and stir concern.

It is true that when the barrels held the liquid paint, they contained a solvent -- which helps the paint dry -- that is hazardous to humans. However, state environmental officials say the organic chemical (a known carcinogen) dissipates once the paint is applied and dries.

As one official said, "It's the same hazard you'd have from walking down the road." Empty paint drums with dried residue on the bottom and sides are not a danger to the environment and pose no threat to humans, officials said.

Given the general suspicion of government these days, it is not surprising that some people think these barrels are still dangerous. No matter how many reassurances are offered, some folks will remain convinced that the county government is playing fast and loose with their health and safety.

Had the warning labels been removed or painted over, the controversy probably never would have arisen. Better yet, county officials could have purchased drums from a Baltimore company that sells, cleans and reconditions them for less than $20 a barrel. They would still be saving county taxpayers considerable money -- and themselves a great deal of grief and unfavorable publicity.

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