Gas danger puts homes off-limits 3 Howard families barred from returning

September 04, 1998|By Jamal E. Watson and Del Quentin Wilber | Jamal E. Watson and Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Three families were barred from returning to their $300,000 homes in Elkridge yesterday after officials detected high levels of an explosive gas seeping into their basements.

"This house is worthless," said Bob Hartwick, who was evacuated from his home in the Calvert Ridge subdivision Wednesday. "This was my entire life savings."

The neighborhood of new homes -- the first finished in early 1997 -- was a sea of activity yesterday.

Firefighters wandered through homes carrying meters to measure levels of the gas -- initially thought to be methane -- in basements. Residents stood on sidewalks and chatted about declining home values, the character of their neighborhood and safety.

"Right now, I don't think anyone has to worry about their houses blowing up," said Capt. Sean Kelly, a spokesman for the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services. "We don't know how [the gas] got there; we don't know where it's coming from. If I was a homeowner, yes, I'd be concerned."

About 80 residents were at a meeting last night outside one of the homes. John Liparini, president of the Brantley Development Group, which developed the subdivision, and an official from Ryan Homes, the subdivision's builder, said ventilation systems

will be installed in homes with a gas buildup.

Robert Coursey, a spokesman for Ryan Homes, said his company will pay housing expenses for those forced to leave. Coursey said Ryan would install gas detectors in the 23 homes already built on Calvert Drive. Four more houses are planned.

"Our main concern is safety and well-being of families involved," Coursey said. "Right now, we're still trying to understand the cause" of the gas buildup.

Officials speculated the gas was created by decaying materials, such as tree stumps and other garbage, dumped on the property decades ago and then covered by dirt and grass. The gas eventually entered the three homes in the 7000 block of Calvert Drive through sump pumps.

Samuel Papauckas, 66, who grew up and still lives near the site, remembers giant trucks lumbering onto the property and depositing rubbish, including concrete and rocks, in an old sand pit 50 years ago.

"In those days, you could dump asphalt and nobody would say anything," he said. "Now it's a hazardous material."

Firefighters said they suspect the gas is methane but are awaiting a chemical analysis conducted by Ryan Homes and Brantley.

A single spark can ignite high levels of methane and cause devastating explosions. Readings at one home on Wednesday showed concentrations high enough to explode. Though those levels subsided yesterday, measurements at the two other affected houses showed increases.

Hartwick contacted authorities about 3: 30 p.m. Wednesday after smelling gas in his basement.

Firefighters responded, along with investigators from the Maryland Department of the Environment, and tested numerous homes before ordering the three evacuations.

Sitting on steps of his evacuated home yesterday, Bill Bambarger, 34, was calling his lawyer, insurance company and relatives on a cordless phone.

He plans to move his wife and three children in with his sister for two months, leaving behind their four-bedroom, 3,400-square-foot home.

"I can't just get up and move like this," said Bambarger, who moved in two months ago. "They never told us that the house was built on a landfill."

Neighbors paced up and down the street, buttonholing officials and asking question after question.

"We're just looking for answers," said Eric Muller, 33, who lives in a house across the street from Bambarger and was not evacuated. "I want to know we're all safe."

Linwood Brown said he's safe -- so far.

"If mine is at zero right now, it might not be at zero tomorrow," said Brown, a next-door neighbor to an evacuated home. "I'm afraid for everyone, especially my two kids."

Brown, like others, was unsure about his future.

"We're waiting to see what to do next," Brown said.

Resident Bob Adams said he fielded calls from two friends yesterday who have purchased lots nearby.

"It's kind of nestled in some woods, a nice little quiet area," he said of his neighborhood. "Now all this has happened.

"We're just getting to know one another," he added. "It's unbelieveable. You don't expect this to happen to your dream home."

Pub Date: 9/04/98

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