Chemicals moved from warehouse

Owner acts at deadline after pressure from city

June 03, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Barrels of hazardous chemicals were removed from a South Baltimore warehouse yesterday morning, as the building's owner yielded to pressure from city and state officials after negotiating with them late into the night before.

Residents who live near the warehouse believe they are getting sick from chemicals stored and dumped there, and have been asking city and state officials to clean up the site. Mayor Martin O'Malley promised he would have the drums of chemicals removed by noon if the owner didn't do it.

It took four workers from CleanVenture Inc., a hazardous materials handler, 20 minutes to pull 11 barrels containing substances believed to be hydrochloric acid and paint waste out of the building at 1700 Clarkson St. The job was completed at noon.

Warehouse owner Edward Louis Birtic of Carroll County, who is under criminal investigation by the state, has not been available for comment for more than a week. His lawyer, Clifford L. Hardwick, did not return calls yesterday.

"We're happy they moved them out," said Carol Thomas, who lives on Clarkson Street. "It was about time."

Ten of 11 barrels removed were in "overpack" safety containers. Nine contained hydrochloric acid, said a work order from CleanVenture, which is based in Elizabeth, N.J.

The order was based on information supplied by Birtic, company officials said. CleanVenture and state officials said they would test the material to verify the contents after the barrels arrive at a disposal site in Lewisberry, Pa.

Hydrochloric acid can irritate the skin, eyes and lungs. Breathing large amounts of it can seriously injure the lungs and cause death, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the U.S. Public Health Service. Inhaling small amounts can cause coughing, tightness in the chest, chemical bronchitis or pneumonia, the registry says.

"It's like the acid in your car battery," said John Purdue, CleanVenture's project manager.

Birtic is being investigated by the attorney general's office for possible environmental violations because of the handling and storage of unidentified chemicals at the warehouse and another in Southwest Baltimore.

Residents in South Baltimore say Birtic had paid neighborhood children and adults $10 to $60 a day to clean trash and remove oozing chemical drums.

Several said they felt sick after the work. They also said that residents have developed breathing problems, headaches and stomach pains in recent years.

Some children said they were asked to remove ceiling tiles and other debris from the warehouse last winter. That pile -- which city and state officials say is contaminated with cancer-causing asbestos fibers -- sits in the yard, near railroad tracks.

Public works employees boarding up the building Wednesday were ordered to remove the pile, not knowing it contained asbestos. The 15 employees, untrained in asbestos removal and without protective gear, loaded the material on trucks, but put the debris back where they found it after being told it contained asbestos.

Jerry Young, chief of training and safety for the Department of Public Works, said yesterday that the men were taken for medical evaluations and chest X-rays. The department will track any changes in their lungs, he said, because illnesses caused from breathing asbestos do not show up for 20 years.

Young said the department was seeking unaired videotapes from television news crews that filmed the incident to determine the size of the dust cloud generated by moving the pile.

On Thursday, Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson issued a "public health state of emergency" for the site after a state environmental worker had a physical reaction to handling soil.

Complete results were not available yesterday, but preliminary tests showed low levels of "typical contaminants you'd find along a railroad line," said Richard Collins, director of Waste Management Administration for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

"It's not clean soil," Collins said. "But we did not find any breakdowns of heavy acids there."

Eleven people in the neighborhood were taken to hospitals and treated for possible chemical exposure Wednesday night after neighbors' 911 calls brought emergency personnel to the area.

They were released from the hospitals that night. Several were given antihistamines and acetaminophen for symptoms that included skin irritations, headaches, stinging eyes and nausea.

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

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