City may buy and demolish 7 homes

Officials planning to clear out arsenic in Swann Park for development

April 19, 2008|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

Baltimore is proposing to condemn and buy seven homes with arsenic pollution in their yards beside contaminated Swann Park as part of a large waterfront development.

The plan for the 50-acre West Covington project in South Baltimore would include hundreds of homes and more than a million square feet of retail and offices beside a cleaned-up and reopened park, city officials said.

"It's pretty clear that this part of the city and the whole Middle Branch area offers a very exciting opportunity for development that doesn't exist now," said City Solicitor George Nilson.

Some of the homeowners next to Swann Park say they want to get away from the polluted area for health reasons. Until it closed in 1976, the Allied Chemical pesticide factory spewed arsenic dust all over the park and neighborhood, leading to potentially higher risks of cancer, according to federal studies.

But the residents say they don't want their homes, in the 200 block of McComas St., condemned - because they're afraid of being strong-armed into selling their properties to the city for less than they're worth.

"If the price is right, I don't want to hold up a community," said Ed White, 57, a salesman who has owned a house on McComas Street for 20 years. "But I don't want to be treated like a nobody and get nothing for my property."

Some of the residents have been talking to a law firm about possible legal action, but no lawsuits have been filed.

"I don't want to be around here anymore. I want to move out to the county," said Harvey Leichling, a 47-year-old McComas Street resident who worries about his health and the health of his two sons. "But nobody's telling me nothing, and it's scaring me more and more."

A year ago today, the Baltimore Health Department suddenly closed the 11-acre park and its popular ball fields. The action was triggered when Allied's successor company, Honeywell International, turned over long-suppressed documents showing that arsenic contamination in the park had for decades been at more than 100 times safe levels. The company said it didn't know why the documents weren't turned over decades earlier.

This summer, contractors plan to bury the arsenic dust in the park, covering it under 2 feet of soil. Hot spots of arsenic contamination will be dug out and hauled away, with Honeywell paying for much of the cleanup.

The proposal to buy up the homes on McComas Street, leading to the park, as well as three businesses nearby, must be approved by the City Council, said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp.

In February, the city's Planning Commission recommended against the condemnations, in part because the three businesses and the seven homeowners oppose having their properties taken.

Brodie said the city will "listen to and consider the advice" of the Planning Commission. But the city might not follow the commission's recommendation, he said. And so far the proposal before the City Council still includes condemnation of the seven homes on McComas Street, Brodie said.

About 200 people work in the three businesses that face condemnation today: a concrete plant, a waste-recycling facility and a lumber company. These could be replaced with the West Covington project, which could have 1,000 people working in its offices and stores, Brodie said.

A city task force released a report yesterday saying that part of the reason the arsenic contamination wasn't cleaned out of the park for three decades was because the Maryland Department of the Environment was underfunded and understaffed.

Horacio Tablada, chief of the MDE's waste management administration, said the state agency is trying to be more efficient with the limited funding it receives.

He added that a new law signed this month will help prevent future Swann Park-like problems because it compels property owners to turn over to the state more internal data showing contamination of old industrial sites.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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