Group managing razing of homes for East Baltimore technology park uses Hopkins research to minimize release of hazardous substances

Making a science of destruction


As a piece of heavy machinery picked at rubble heaped where a block of rowhouses once stood, Robin Carter-Morton scanned the debris in search of public enemy No. 1 - dust.

To hold down the dust, the debris had been soaked with water, but it was drying out under the relentless summer sun, so Carter-Morton ordered workers to hose it down again.

"We're not going to get rid of all of the dust," said Carter-Morton. "But we do try to minimize it as much as possible."

Carter-Morton is overseeing the demolition of more than 500 vacant houses in East Baltimore near Johns Hopkins Hospital. There's a science to her work: The houses are being razed using strict guidelines based on research by Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health. The guidelines call for minimizing dust, lead emissions, rodent infestation and other potential hazards.

The land is being cleared to make way for a life sciences and technology park that will include offices, retail stores and housing. The $1 billion project is expected to generate 6,000 jobs and link biotech firms with Hopkins researchers.

Carter-Morton works for East Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit group managing the project. More than 250 families were relocated before the demolition began. Since it started last month, more than 378 houses have been torn down.

As she tours the area, dust is one of the hazards she's especially concerned about. Exposure to high dust levels has been linked to allergies, asthma attacks and other health problems.

EBDI reviewed the research of Dr. Mark Farfel and his colleagues at the Bloomberg School of Public Health when it drew up the guidelines for the demolition. City health officials, community residents and a private demolition contractor also provided input.

For six years Farfel studied demolition projects in the city, noting inadequate control of dust, lead emissions, wastewater accumulation, public access to the demolition site and other safety hazards, according to EBDI.

To test the effectiveness of the guidelines, 16 houses in the project area were razed last summer and the results were monitored, EBDI officials said.

According to EBDI's manual for the demolition project, the following e safeguards have been implemented:

Before the large-scale demolition work began last month, state-certified exterminators were called in to kill rats in and around the properties.

All items coated with lead paint, such as window sills, door frames, baseboards and banisters, must be removed from the debris, wrapped in plastic and sealed with duct tape. These items must be placed in special Dumpsters for disposal. Other debris contaminated with hazardous materials must be disposed of in a similar fashion.

Materials such as structural steel, concrete, lumber, certain kinds of bricks, shingles, roofing materials and tile must be separated from the debris for possible recycling.

Trucks traveling to and from the site must use routes that will not cause traffic problems.

An independent source must monitor lead emissions by taking air, dust and soil samples.

EBDI Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Robert C. Penn, said there have been few complaints about dust from neighborhood residents. Before the demolition began, the company gave away 250 vacuum cleaners to residents living near the demolition area.

"There has been no real significant dust," Penn said. "We had a couple of buildings, because of the weak structures, they went down kind of fast, and you had a puff. So I don't want to say it was no dust, but they have been real good in terms of wetting down [the] site, so in a matter of seconds, it was gone."

But officials with the Save Middle East Baltimore Action Committee, a community group that's voiced opposition to the demolition, tell a different story.

Marisela Gomez, the group's executive director, says she has received 10 to 15 stories of residents who have suffered from the increased dust in the area.

One woman said she had to go to the hospital because she was having trouble breathing, according to Gomez. Gomez said people have been complaining about the dust, "since the demolition started."

"It really is increased stress on the residents," she said. "People are saying it's stressful and depressing to come out and see the noise and dust and traffic."

As the demolition work enters the homestretch, the focus for P&J Contracting, the firm charged with clearing the site, has begun debris removal.

Every hour, several two-ton covered trucks carrying damp rubble head toward Honeygo Landfill in Baltimore County. The debris is wetted down at a check point before heading out to Ashland Avenue. The project area is bound by Eager Street to the north, Ashland to the south, Broadway to the west and Washington Street to the east.

Nearly 7,000 tons of debris have been removed, and officials expect another 153,000 tons when the project is finished. Once the debris is cleared, workers will remove the foundations and footers of the former units.

"It is going to take a while," Penn said.

For now, though, rubble in some areas rises to fence level, a height of about 6 feet. EBDI officials say the debris will not get higher.

With continued good weather, the demolition and debris removal is expected to be complete by Oct. 31, the original target date. Despite steamy, hot weather in which temperatures soared into triple digits, workers have yet to miss a day.

The independent panel monitoring the air will host an open meeting in September, inviting residents who want an update on the air and soil samples. The community action committee is scheduled to meet with residents in the coming weeks as well.

Carter-Morton is serving as EBDI's point person for problems before then.

"They know they can come to me if they see anything out of the ordinary," Carter-Morton said.

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