City steps up its probe of warehouse pollution

Unknown chemicals, asbestos discovered at S. Baltimore site

Extent of threat unknown

Residents examined to check for possible illness from exposure

May 27, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

As state investigators widened their criminal probe into possible environmental violations by a city warehouse owner, health officials met yesterday with residents worried about exposure to unidentified chemicals at a South Baltimore site.

The Maryland Department of the Environment on Thursday issued its second site complaint this week to Edward Louis Birtic, a Finksburg man who owns two city warehouses, officials confirmed yesterday.

Birtic was ordered to identify and dispose of more than a dozen 55-gallon drums that state investigators found filled with unidentified chemicals and stored illegally at a Southwest Baltimore warehouse, officials said. That building is also headquarters for his company, Better Buildings Inc. in the 600 block of S. Smallwood St.

"This is perhaps a pattern of an individual who is generating waste but not properly disposing of it," said Richard McIntire, spokesman for the department.

The attorney general's environmental crimes unit launched its investigation last week, after officials found 18 drums of what is believed to be hazardous materials at Birtic's warehouse in the 1700 block of Clarkson St. in South Baltimore. Investigators found asbestos-laden ceiling tiles and liquids eating through unmarked metal barrels, oozing onto the floor and out a warehouse door where children often play.

Birtic would not comment on the storage of the chemicals or the investigation.

"The building is in the process of being sold. That's the only comment I have to make," Birtic said. "Negotiations are going on as we speak."

Birtic told state environmental officials he has been storing chemicals in the warehouse for about 10 years, they said.

Meanwhile, residents near the South Baltimore site who had complained of headaches, nausea and rashes were seen by health professionals yesterday.

The city Health Department sent a mobile medical camper to the corner of Clarkson and West Barney streets to offer medical consultations to the residents, some of whom do not have health insurance, said Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson.

"The neighborhood is concerned with possible environmental exposure," he said. "We still don't know exactly what it is, or what to tell them to get tested for."

South Baltimore residents plan to protest in front of the warehouse today at 10 a.m., demanding that the 50-foot-by-62-foot former machine shop be torn down.

Deborah Boyd, whose house is attached to the warehouse, said her 5-year-old daughter, Jordan, suffers from constant breathing and stomach problems, which force her to miss school. Strong odors from the adjacent building are noticeable in Boyd's basement, which doubles as her bedroom.

"It's a big mess down here," said Boyd, whose eyes were red, swollen and puffy yesterday. "Back in January, the fumes got so bad we had to call the fire department because we thought there were dead people in there."

Residents in South Baltimore say Birtic had paid neighborhood children and young adults $10 to $60 a day to clean trash and chemical drums from the Clarkson Street building.

Several said they felt sick after the work. They also say several people in the neighborhood have developed breathing problems, headaches and stomachaches in recent years. They suspect the problems are linked to the chemicals.

"Almost everyone around here has a constant headache. We shouldn't all have a headache at the same time," said Angela Ireland, who lives on Clarkson Street. "There's a lot of health problems around here that aren't accounted for."

Headaches, asthma and nausea are symptoms that can develop after exposure to chemicals, Beilenson said.

Inside the Health Department's mobile camper, residents sat at cramped desks and answered questions about their health -- and about whether they had been "in the warehouse or on the warehouse grounds" in the last six months.

"The owner is clearly remiss in his responsibility to the neighborhood," Beilenson said. "Would I want to live there? No. Can I say for sure it's dangerous? No."

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.

The penalty for knowingly endangering someone with hazardous materials is a maximum of 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Eric Augustus Banks, a compliance officer with the city Department of Public Works, said officials are awaiting identification of the chemicals, but he confirmed that piles of asbestos-laded ceiling tiles sit inside and outside the buildings.

"This is the first time in eight years I can remember a potentially serious environmental concern like this in the city, except for Wagner's Point," Beilenson said, referring to an enclave in South Baltimore's chemical belt where the city is buying up homes, after finding high cancer rates among residents. "This is an unusual occurrence in the city."

Sun staff writer Mark Ribbing contributed to this article.

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