Company explains chemical accident But Wagner's Point residents respond with polite skepticism

June 01, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Officials of an herbicide plant near the beleaguered South Baltimore community of Wagner's Point told residents yesterday in excruciating detail what went wrong May 15 when an acrid gaseous plume escaped into the neighborhood.

But the candor of FMC Corp., which was topped off by a factory tour for community leaders wearing hard- hats and carrying respirators, did little to reassure the plant's neighbors.

"Accidents do occur, I know that," Wayne Gray, 44, a 15-year resident, said after FMC managers spoke to about 50 people in the Fairfield fire station. "I know FMC produces jobs, and I don't want to shut them down. But what about the next accident? Will that be the last one for us?"

Like Gray, most Wagner's Point residents have given up trying to coexist with the industrial behemoths around them and are seeking to persuade the city and state to buy their houses and permit them to relocate. Yesterday's inside view of the latest industrial accident seemed only to reinforce the desire of most of the area's 250 residents to move out.

"The longer we've lived here, the worse it's gotten," said Troy Ferris, 49, whose family moved to the neighborhood in 1958. "I know three guys I played with growing up that have died of cancer."

The members of the Fairfield-Wagner's Point Neighborhood Coalition saw a slide show explaining that 382 pounds of orthochlorobenzaldehyde were released May 15.

They saw the flow meter whose incorrect calibration caused the herbicide mixture to heat to 350 degrees and build up so much pressure that it blew out in three places.

They were offered an opportunity to sniff vials of the components of "Command," an herbicide used by soybean growers whose components were released in the accident. The offer produced quiet laughter among people who apparently believed they had already smelled enough.

They also heard why community leaders didn't get the telephone warnings they had been promised would come with any accidental release of chemicals. A plant employee was told to call "the names on the pink sheet"; the pink sheet had been photocopied onto white paper, and the employee never found it.

But the patient explanations of Ed Michener, the plant manager, and Parker Dean, its health, safety and environmental manager, seemed only to underscore how human error and bad luck conspire to produce mishaps. Their promise to upgrade equipment and improve communication was received with polite skepticism.

The plant, part of the agricultural products group of FMC, a Chicago-based conglomerate, has been making Command herbicide at the Fairfield plant since 1986. "It's run without incident from 1986 until May 15 at 7: 30 p.m.," Dean said.

That was when, for a period of one to two minutes, the mixture spewed from a broken expansion joint and two vents, one of which functions like the vent on a pressure cooker. Neighbors complained of a harsh, but strangely sweet-smelling gas. Six-year-old Lisa Ferris, the granddaughter of Gray and Ferris, was playing outside at the time of the accident and seemed to suffer no ill effects. But the next day, she began to cry and complained that her eyes and throat were stinging, Gray said.

Lisa's family blamed the FMC spill. Susan Gilson, the plant's industrial hygienist, said it seemed unlikely that there was a connection.

After a series of doctor's visits and three trips to Johns Hopkins Hospital, Lisa seems to have recovered completely, said her mother, 22-year-old Dawn Gray, who still harbors fears and suspicions.

"To me, I think they're not telling you all there is on the health issue," Dawn Gray said.

Pub Date: 6/01/98

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