Fuel release angers BWI's neighbors Airport officials called evasive and callous

January 22, 1998|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan and Laura Sullivan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan and Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County officials and residents, livid that a plane making an emergency landing dumped a stream of jet fuel onto Glen Burnie on Tuesday, are calling BWI officials evasive and callous.

"It is in their best interest to tell the people the truth up front about what's going on," said state Del. Michael W. Burns, a Republican whose district includes Glen Burnie.

"We were extremely busy trying to get a handle on what was happening," Ted Mathison, executive director of aviation administration at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, said yesterday in defense of airport officials' actions.

At 6: 20 p.m. Tuesday, Tracy Schulden and her 8-year-old son, Kelly, were walking through the parking lot of Arthur Slade Regional Catholic School, about a mile from the airport, on their way to a Cub Scouts meeting when they heard a low-flying plane pass by and saw a whitish mist fall around them.

Covering their mouths with their sweaters, they hurried inside, but their clothes smelled of gas and Kelly soon began complaining of a headache and stomachache.

Schulden said she called the airport but couldn't find out what had happened or what the mist was. An attendant told her "there would be an announcement later on," Schulden recalled, and put her on hold and then transferred her to voice mail.

Mathison said the handling of that call is being investigated, and he acknowledged "it was was not a very good response."

"It aggravated me because that was a school," Schulden said. "If it had been daytime, there could have been 200 or 300 kids out in that parking lot."

The plane was a World Airways Germany-bound DC-10 chartered by an Illinois Air Force unit to transport personnel and their families, said Bill Lang, vice president of operations for the Washington-based airline.

The flight had left BWI about 6 p.m. and was cruising at 25,000 feet over New Jersey when a 22-month-old girl choked on a piece of gum and fell unconscious, Lang said.

The pilot turned around and notified tower officials at BWI he would have to dump 13,000 gallons of fuel to land at the weight called for by Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

Airport officials said the tower cleared air space over the Atlantic Ocean for the plane to dump the fuel. But a valve did not shut completely and, as the plane prepared to land, about 100 gallons of leftover fuel trapped in the plane's pipes escaped over Glen Burnie.

"When the wings flared out for landing, the excess fuel was sucked out and splattered on a few houses and cars -- and left a little on the runway," Lang said. "It is most regrettable, but it is not a normal occurrence."

The girl was breathing again by the time the plane landed, but a pilot waiting to take off on the runway saw something draining from the rear of the World Airways jet and notified the tower at 6: 24 p.m.

"We quickly called [Maryland Department of the Environment] to get out there and check out the area," Mathison said.

MDE logs showed the airport called at 8: 12 p.m.

BWI officials did not notify Janice McIntosh, the principal of Arthur Slade. They didn't call the Anne Arundel fire department, either.

"We hope they recognize the need to contact us in all situations so that we can handle it appropriately," said county fire spokesman John Scholz. "We have a hazardous-materials response team that handles these things routinely."

BWI spokeswoman Marilyn Corbett said, "We did not call the fire department because they do not have the capability to clean up whatever might have been out there."

Quentin Banks, an MDE spokesman, said an emergency response inspector sent to the school vicinity soon after BWI's call found no indications of "adverse impact on the environment." He said they also called the Schuldens to tell them to shower.

Planes dumping fuel on county neighborhoods is not usual, Banks said, though this wasn't the first time it has happened. He said jet fuel is volatile and evaporates quickly when released at high altitudes.

Breathing the mist has no long-term effects but can cause temporary nausea and headaches, Banks said. Schulden said she and Kelly experienced skin irritation and nausea. Schulden called Kelly's pediatrician, who referred her to the "Ask a Nurse" hot line, which referred her to poison control, where someone advised her to bathe and feed Kelly.

Kelly stayed home from school yesterday with an upset stomach.

Burns, who represents Arundel's northern communities, was irate at BWI officials and said they have been chronically "not forthcoming." Residents near the airport have told him "it's not a rare occurrence" for landing planes to spray fuel onto their roofs, he said.

"If I owned a business and we discharged gasoline and somebody was affected by it, we would have a legal duty to instruct them what to do.

"For the airport to whistle the tune 'Don't Worry, Be Happy' is not going to cut it any more," he said.

Pub Date: 1/22/98

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