Untold staff moves pile, asbestos, returns it

Baltimore city official denies knowing stack contained carcinogen

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

City public works crews descended yesterday on an abandoned South Baltimore warehouse where hazardous chemicals are stored, boarding up open windows and removing a heap of debris the workers did not know was covered with asbestos.

The 15 workers, who were not trained in asbestos removal and wore no protective gear, found out that the pile of ceiling tiles and wood planks they moved was laden with the cancer-causing fibers four hours after they began the job.

"The stuff was flying back there," Deborah Boyd, who lives in the neighborhood, said of the dust.

After loading the material onto dump trucks and leaving the site, the workers were told that the debris contained asbestos. They were ordered to turn their dump trucks around and drop their loads at the spot on the warehouse property, at 1700 Clarkson St., where they had found the material, officials said.

The public works crews were ordered onto the property yesterday to board up the building after housing officials found that the owner never corrected a 1994 housing code violation that required him to clean up the site and repair or raze the warehouse.

The property, owned by Edward Louis Birtic of Finksburg, has been the source of neighborhood complaints and is the focus of a state environmental investigation because of the unidentified chemicals stored there in corroded barrels.

At a community meeting Tuesday night, residents told the city's senior housing official, Reggie Scriber, who ordered the cleanup, that the pile contained asbestos. State and city officials confirmed the asbestos, and the news media had reported that the heap contained the material several times during the past week.

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

Birtic, who could not be reached for comment last night, is being investigated by the environmental crimes unit of the attorney general's office for possible violations stemming from storing and handling chemicals there. 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, said MDE spokesman Richard McIntire.

Exposure to 2-butanone can cause dizziness, fatigue, headaches, nausea and vomiting, according to the National Safety Council's Web site. Prolonged exposure can cause depression.

Neighborhood residents have complained of breathing problems, headaches and stomaches in recent years.

The Maryland Department of the Environment issued two complaints in the past two weeks to Birtic, ordering him to identify and dispose of chemical drums that state investigators found to be stored illegally at the Clarkson Street warehouse and another in Southwest Baltimore.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said he wants to fence the area to keep children out.

"We are very much involved," O'Malley said. "Our main concern is fencing the area until MDE can figure out what it is. We are also concerned for city workers who were out there."

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