Used oil piling up at city recycling drop-off station

December 11, 2010

The problem: Used oil, antifreeze and paint cans piling up at a city recycling drop-off station in North Baltimore, where any leaks could easily drain into the Jones Falls.

The back story: When Jonathan Howard changes the oil in his truck, he takes the old stuff to the city's sanitation yard at 2840 Sisson St. There's a tank there where residents can pour their used oil. But the tank filled up, or stopped accepting more oil, weeks ago.

"As a result, people are just leaving their containers of used oil near the tank," he wrote in a recent e-mail. "The sea of dirty oil containers has grown out considerably as time has gone on.

"This is environmentally hazardous," Howard went on, "as any rain could wash the caustic oil off the containers and pollute the water and the Jones Falls."

Two visits by Watchdog in the past two weeks confirmed Howard's observations, and more. Used oil containers, some of them open trays of black liquid, surrounded the tank. They'd been joined, though, by a bunch of antifreeze jugs, paint cans, and buckets with unknown contents. On one visit during a light rain, rainbow-colored rivulets of oily water could be seen trickling across the pavement away from the cans and toward the back of the lot, which borders the Jones Falls.

Watchdog asked the staff at the drop-off station why the pile was there and was told that the used-oil tank was inoperable and had been for about a month.

A call to the city's Department of Public Works produced a prompt response from Valentina Ukwuoma, chief of the bureau of solid waste.

"The oil tank was clogged up,'' she acknowledged in an e-mail relayed by Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the department. "We've taken appropriate steps to unclog and clean up the area. All the paint materials were removed ... and the area cleaned up."

If all was done as promised, it would be a quick fix to a problem that had been allowed to fester. Ukwuoma wrote that the cans, trays and buckets started piling up because the center's staff generally works on the other side of the lot, where they couldn't readily see the oil tank area. But the pileup, and the oily runoff, might have been prevented if prompter action had been taken. If the tank couldn't be readily repaired, a simple sign saying it was out of order and urging residents to use one of the city's other four drop-off centers might've averted the dumping.

Who can fix this: Valentina Ukwuoma, solid waste bureau chief, Baltimore Department of Public Works. 410-396-5134. City residents should call 311 to report problems.

—Timothy B. Wheeler

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