East Baltimore bus facility stirs neighbors' ire

Residents complain of noise, pollution

  • Freida "Miss Penny" Morton stands outside the MTA's Kirk Ave. yard. Morton's rowhome on Barltett Avenue is separated only by a narrow alley from the fenced MTA bus yard.
Freida "Miss Penny" Morton stands outside the MTA's… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
May 29, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

Like many Baltimoreans, Freida Morton has a charcoal grill on the small patio in back of her East Baltimore rowhouse.

But the 69-year-old says she doesn't have any plans for a Memorial Day cookout there because of the racket and fumes from her neighbor across the narrow alley, a busy Maryland Transit Administration bus yard, with 160-some diesel buses departing, arriving and idling nearly around the clock.

"Nobody will be eating out here," she said last week. "When my family comes, we all sit out front or in the house."

Morton and other residents living near the MTA bus yard on Kirk Avenue have been complaining for years about the diesel exhaust and noise, most recently at a public meeting earlier this month, contending that the buses that operate out of there impair their health and invade the quiet of their homes. Though state transit officials have taken some steps to buffer nearby residents from the facility — and plan even more — those living nearest it say they won't be satisfied until the buses are rumbling from somewhere else.

"My tongue's been burning for 20 years," Morton said. "It's difficult to get the taste of your food." Her eyes seem to be constantly red and irritated, she added.

About 163 buses run out of the 6.7-acre bus yard, serving 14 routes that traverse the city and reach into Baltimore County, carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers weekly. The yard has been in use since 1947, according to MTA, but Morton, who's lived on Bartlett for 47 years, contended the operation has grown and expanded closer to the homes over the decades.

Many of her neighbors are no longer around to complain, Morton said. She's created a poster to remember those she says have died of cancer or heart or respiratory problems over the past 20 to 30 years. The front has about 30 portraits pasted on it, with the names and pictures of another 30 people on the back.

"That's a whole generation there," she said.

There's been no study to determine whether there have been unusually high rates of cancer or respiratory diseases around the bus yard. Even if disease rates are elevated, pinning them on any particular cause or causes is extremely difficult, experts say.

But measurements taken in and around Morton's home in 2004 by the Johns Hopkins Center for Urban Environmental Health found that noise levels at the bus depot fence line exceeded the limit set by Baltimore's health ordinance.

In two weeks of air sampling, the researchers also found that fine-particle pollution levels typical of diesel exhaust and other combustion were below the daily limit set by the federal government. But the two-week average was slightly above the safety threshold for year-round exposure — the kind of dose people who live there are getting day in and day out.

"It's really kind of a sad state of affairs," said Timothy J. Buckley, who directed the study and has since become chairman of the environmental health sciences department at Ohio State University. He voiced sympathy for "that poor community who basically have been living with this how many years?"

Fine particles can get into the lungs and make it difficult to breathe. Research has linked particle exposure with aggravated asthma, chronic bronchitis, heart attacks and even premature deaths among people with heart or lung disease.

While noise may seem like nothing more than a nuisance, research has shown it can impair health as well, said Buckley. Studies have linked worsening of asthma with air pollution and stress, he said.

"I think the evidence is mounting that they can work together to really create or exacerbate diseases," he said. "So if you've got the diesel exhaust and at the same time the community is under stress; it definitely is placing them at higher risk of disease."

Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the state agency leaves regulation of "mobile" pollution sources like buses to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. But he said agency officials have worked with the MTA in recent years to reduce bus emissions by switching to a less-polluting diesel fuel blend and by getting better starters for the vehicles, so they don't need to idle as long.

Brian Schleter, spokesman for the city Health Department, said the MTA was fined once in 2004 for violating the noise ordinance, but the case was dropped after the agency pledged to reduce the amount of time buses idled on the lot. He said there had been no recent complaints about noise from the neighborhood.

Morton said she's complained repeatedly to MTA and to elected officials, but gotten little satisfaction — except for the time a few years ago when she said the state transportation secretary visited her and stepped out back.

"He liked to jump out of his expensive suit," she recalled with a chuckle, when the public address system used to communicate with drivers in the yard blared out. The loudspeakers have since been silenced.

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