City declares warehouse a public health threat

Order clears way for cleanup if owner doesn't act by today

June 02, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Hours after 11 South Baltimore residents were taken to area hospitals for possible chemical exposure, city Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson declared a warehouse site a public health threat yesterday, in an effort to speed up removal of hazardous chemicals there.

Beilenson's emergency order, his first since taking office eight years ago, clears the way for the city to have the site cleaned up if the owner does not do it by today, Mayor Martin O'Malley said last night.

"If he doesn't agree to do it by noon, we're going to go in and do it," O'Malley said of the owner. "I'm rootin'-tootin' angry about this. That stuff ain't staying there over the weekend."

Beilenson issued the "public health state of emergency" after a state environmental worker had a physical reaction yesterday when he handled soil next to the warehouse.

The owner of the warehouse, Edward Louis Birtic of Finksburg, has not been available for comment for the past week. He is the target of a criminal investigation by the state into possible environmental violations stemming from the handling and storage of chemicals in two warehouses.

Scores of emergency workers responded Wednesday night to the neighborhood around the warehouse, at 1700 Clarkson St., and took eight adults and three children to hospitals to be examined for chemical exposure. They were released that night; some were given antihistamines and acetaminophen for symptoms that included skin irritations, headaches, stinging eyes and nausea. Most of the 11 said they continued to feel sick yesterday.

Beilenson said Wednesday night that most of the residents' ailments were probably "suggestive symptoms" caused by watching television news accounts of the state investigation into the warehouse. But, he said yesterday that he believes the soil around the warehouse may be soaked with hazardous chemicals -- after the Maryland Department of the Environment official complained of a reaction to the soil.

"I felt tingling in my face and backed up a little," said Alan J. Williams, chief of the MDE's Emergency Response Division.

Williams took a soil sample for testing; he said the results should be back before noon today.

City Public Works employees were boarding up the site Wednesday -- and moved a pile of ceiling tiles and wood planks that they did not know contained asbestos. The 15 employees, untrained in asbestos removal and without protective gear, also were not aware that the pile was sitting on soil that may be contaminated with hazardous chemicals.

The cleanup was ordered by Reggie Scriber, a top city housing official, who sent the crew to board up the property after housing officials discovered that the owner failed to correct a 1994 code violation requiring him to fix up the vacant warehouse or get rid of it.

Workers used front-end loaders to dig in the dirt and remove the debris in trucks. Four hours after they started the job, they found out what the load was and put the it back where they found it.

MDE spokesman Richard McIntire said his agency will examine "down the line" how the emergency situation was handled.

The MDE has issued two complaints against Birtic in the past two weeks, ordering him to identify and dispose of drums of chemicals stored at the Clarkson Street warehouse and another in Southwest Baltimore. The second building, at 625 S. Smallwood St., is also headquarters for his company, Better Buildings Inc.

Residents in South Baltimore say neighborhood children and young adults were paid $10 to $60 a day to clean trash and remove chemical drums from the Clarkson Street building. Several said they felt sick after the work. They also said people in the neighborhood have developed breathing problems, headaches and stomach pains in recent years.

Pub Date: 6/02/00

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.