Residents cry foul over odor Pollution: The South Baltimore community of Wagner's Point hopes a lawsuit will force improvements at the nearby Patapsco sewage-treatment plant.

December 18, 1997|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Residents of Wagner's Point were not surprised to hear that the neighboring Patapsco sewage-treatment plant has triggered a lawsuit alleging illegal pollution.

Local folks say they know the plant has troubles. They can smell them.

Many in the tiny Curtis Bay enclave -- three blocks of neat rowhouses surrounded by a moonscape of scrap yards and industrial plants -- see the city-run plant as a nuisance and hope the lawsuit will force improvements.

But they couldn't understand why the lawsuit, filed Monday by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment, doesn't mention the most obvious feature of living downwind from a sewage plant.

Foul odors from the plant are at least a weekly occurrence, according to residents. But that complaint is denied by the city Department of Public Works.

Plant operators "haven't had any complaints, and they haven't had any problems," said public works spokesman Kurt Kocher.

Maryland Department of Environment officials, including those who prepared the lawsuit accusing the city of violating the Clean Water Act at the sewage plant and at a water treatment plant in Northwest Baltimore, say they are unaware of bad smells at Wagner's Point.

"I can't remember anyone in the area, any businesses or residents, lodging a complaint about odor," said Mike Reahl, the state agency's chief inspector for the Baltimore area.

Residents say they've been living with the plant's smells since it opened in 1984 and long ago quit complaining about it, except among themselves.

Residents such as Jeannette Skrzecz, the neighborhood's unofficial mayor, and Wayne Gray, a relative newcomer with 15 years in Wagner's Point, say the plant's odors return no matter how often they complain. And they say the stench is just a part of the smell of doom that hovers over the 101-year-old community of 249 people, once a thriving neighborhood of cannery workers' homes, shops, a church, beaches and marshes.

The cannery, churches and shops are long gone. The marshes have been filled in, the beaches sea-walled and closed off behind high chain-link fences as a postwar industrial boom brought chemical plants and petroleum tank farms to Wagner's Point.

The neighborhood sits in the middle of a city-designated empowerment zone. The city's plan calls for more industry and makes no provision for the tiny community, many of whose residents are grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the neighborhood's settlers.

"The community's future is undetermined at best," reads a December 1996 report on the Fairfield Ecological Industrial Park, which will surround Wagner's Point. The city projects that the park will bring as many as 4,000 new jobs, many of them in environment-friendly industries such as recycling.

But the report by the consulting firm HOH Associates Inc. says the blue-collar residents of Wagner's Point probably aren't qualified for those jobs. Residents, many of them former shipyard workers, agree that they won't benefit from the development.

"All we'll get is other people's trash," said Skrzecz, 56, who has lived in the neighborhood since she was three years old.

Back then, Wagner's Point was a quiet haven away from the city for its working-class residents, many with family ties that stretched back to the Polish immigrants who settled the area. There were a few factories, but mostly there was open space -- good spots for fishing and crabbing, swimming and picnicking.

"By the '60s, we had lost all of that," said Skrzecz. "Now it's an industrial area, and [government officials will] pretty much leave the houses alone until they fall down and then bring in more industry."

Wayne Gray moved his wife and three daughters to Wagner's Point 15 years ago to be near his mother-in-law. They bought a rowhouse on Leo Street, a block from the site where the sewage plant was being built.

"It was the worst mistake I ever made," Gray said. "I've been trying to get out ever since."

Gray said he and many other residents feel trapped. Some are elderly, living on fixed incomes. Others are unemployed or disabled. And though most houses in the enclave show evidence of neighborhood pride -- a gleaming new paint job, a stoop framed by potted plants, a well-washed statue of Jesus or Mary -- it's clear the community is not affluent.

Gray figures he couldn't sell his house for enough money to buy another one elsewhere. "Who wants to buy a house with a sewer plant in the back yard?" he said.

Rusty Simpson, Maryland office manager for the environmental group Clean Water Action, said he and about 15 other members of the group took a guided tour of the plant in September and were "disgusted" by the smell.

"It was obvious the minute we got into the community, much less the plant," said Simpson. "The tour guide said, 'I realize it doesn't smell that good, but to us it smells like money.' "

The smells are strongest when it rains and late at night, a half-dozen residents said in separate interviews.

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