State prosecutors have begun a criminal investigation into possible environmental violations at a South Baltimore warehouse, after finding what is believed to be hazardous materials illegally stored at the site, authorities said yesterday.
The investigation by the attorney general's environmental crimes unit began last week after residents complained that the warehouse owner had paid neighborhood children and young adults $10 to $60 a day to clean trash and chemical drums from the warehouse at 1700 Clarkson St.
Inside the building, city and state investigators found liquids eating through unmarked metal barrels, oozing onto the floor and out a warehouse door, said Eric Augustus Banks, a compliance officer with the city Department of Public Works.
Banks, who investigates environmental crimes, discovered the acidic liquids and other materials believed to be hazardous last week after an all-night surveillance of the warehouse with a state investigator.
"It was leaking in several areas. The liquid flowed across the floor and pooled out on the right side of the door," Banks said yesterday. "It's a bad situation for the neighborhood. The children were exposed to some type of chemical element that is still unknown to us. Those citizens need to be checked out."
Banks said officials are awaiting identification of the chemicals, but he confirmed that there were piles of asbestos-ladened ceiling tiles inside and outside the buildings. The chemicals were stored without permits or labels, he said.
The warehouse owner, Edward L. Birtic, was cited Friday by the Maryland Department of the Environment for having unknown chemicals on the site. He was ordered to identify them and properly dispose of them, said department spokesman Richard McIntire.
Birtic, a Finksburg resident who owns Better Buildings Inc., a general contracting company, did not return calls yesterday.
The attorney general's office would not comment yesterday because the case is "under criminal investigation by this office," said Howard Nicholson, supervising attorney for the environmental crimes unit.
The penalty for knowingly endangering someone with hazardous materials is a maximum of 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, he said.
Last night, about 70 neighborhood residents gathered in front of the building -- a 50-by-62-foot former machine shop -- and asked government officials for health screenings for themselves and their children.
"That man was paying my 10-year-old son to clean asbestos, lead and whatever other chemicals out of there," said Kathy Singer, who has lived in South Baltimore for 25 years. "Where is the owner going to be in 20 years when our kids are sick with asbestos?"
She said her son, Eddie, broke out in a rash after he worked in the warehouse, removing trash and moving drums filled with a clear, green liquid. His friend Mathew Fox said he developed a rash, too.
"My eyes swelled. I broke out on my face, my arms, everywhere," said Mathew, 12. "I went to four different hospitals and none of the doctors knew what it was."
The owner "told us he'd been storing the chemicals in the warehouse for over 10 years," McIntire said. "He told our staff it was some type of hardener."
In 1995, Birtic offered 60,000 to 70,000 square feet in the building to artists burned out of the Clipper Industrial Park in North Baltimore, saying they would have to take it "just the way it is."
The empty warehouse, with open elevator shafts, is attached to a row of homes on Clarkson Street. Neighbors complain of rats, rank odors and falling bricks.
"We have a terrible odor coming through the house," said Deborah Boyd, whose home is attached to the warehouse. "We thought something was dead in there."
Reuben Dagold, director of environmental health for the city's health department, said the agency will offer free health consultations tomorrow for South Baltimore residents.
Residents say they don't know what chemicals they were exposed to and that they don't know what to ask their doctors to screen for.