Air quality raises fears

City moves, returns asbestos at warehouse in South Baltimore

11 hospitalized

Official denies knowing debris held carcinogen

June 01, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Eleven people who live near a South Baltimore warehouse that holds drums of hazardous chemicals were taken by ambulance to area hospitals last night and placed in decontamination units.

The city Fire Department cordoned off a three-block area around the warehouse, at 1700 Clarkson St., for an hour and a half. Investigators did not find leaking chemicals or air quality problems -- as was feared -- and residents were allowed back in the neighborhood at 9: 30 p.m.

The eight adults and three children who were hospitalized complained of rashes, headaches, stinging eyes and nausea. They were expected to be released last night.

"The air there is as clean as in my living room," said Alan Williams, manager of field operations for the Maryland Department of the Environment, which conducted the tests in the warehouse. "But we have 11 people in the hospital."

Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson said he did not see any patterns of illness that he could attribute to the chemicals in the warehouse.

"My guess is it's suggestive symptoms," Beilenson said. "Maybe based on news reports."

The Maryland Department of the Environment released test results yesterday identifying one of the chemicals stored in the warehouse as 2-butanone, also known as methyl ethyl ketone, a substance used in paint thinner and glues, and as a cleaning agent.

About 45 other compounds in the chemical samples could not be identified, according to the MDE. Exposure to 2-butanone can cause dizziness, fatigue, headaches, nausea and vomiting.

Earlier yesterday, city Public Works crews arrived at the abandoned warehouse, boarded up open windows and removed a pile of debris that unbeknown to the workers, was covered with asbestos.

The cleanup was ordered by Reggie Scriber, a top city housing official. The 15 employees who did the work, untrained in asbestos removal and without protective gear, discovered four hours into the job that the ceiling tiles and wood planks they'd been moving were laden with cancer-causing asbestos fibers.

"The stuff was flying back there," said Deborah Boyd, who lives in the neighborhood. Boyd was one of those taken to the hospital last night.

After loading most of the material onto dump trucks and leaving the site, the workers were told by a city official, who asked not to be named, that the debris contained asbestos.

The workers were ordered back to the warehouse to dump the debris where they had found it. The crew had been sent to board up the property after housing officials discovered that the owner failed to correct a 1994 code violation requiring him to clean the site, repair it or raze it.

The owner, Edward Louis Birtic of Finksburg, is the focus of a state investigation because of the chemicals stored in corroded barrels at the Clarkson Street site.

At a community meeting Tuesday night, residents told Scriber that the pile of debris contained asbestos. State and city officials confirmed those claims, which were reported several times in the past week by the media.

Scriber said he didn't know.

`We weren't informed'

"We weren't informed," he said. "If someone told us there was asbestos there, we wouldn't have moved it."

Birtic, who has been unavailable for comment for the past week, is being investigated by the environmental crimes unit of the attorney general's office.

Yesterday, the Department of Housing and Community Development filed a housing complaint in District Court against Birtic, according to the agency. A court date is set for Monday, July 3, at which the housing department will argue that Birtic must fix the building or get rid of it.

Cost uncertain

Scriber said yesterday that Birtic will be billed for the cleanup but that he could not say how much it would cost.

The Maryland Department of the Environment issued a pair of complaints in the past two weeks against Birtic, ordering him to identify the contents of the drums and dispose of them.

In addition to at the Clarkson Street warehouse, investigators found illegally stored chemicals in the 600 block of S. Smallwood St. That address is headquarters for Birtic's company, Better Buildings Inc.

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