Demolition of paint plant raises health, environmental concerns

When Berea resident Nia Redmond heard that the long-vacant paint manufacturing plant in her East Baltimore neighborhood was to be torn down, she went door to door passing out fliers, inviting her neighbors to an emergency meeting.

"A lot of us are still planting vegetables in our yards and we don't want to eat lead," Redmond said. "This is an elderly neighborhood. A lot of people already have asthma in here; a lot of people already have emphysema in here."

Early next year, the city is set to demolish the Ainsworth Paint and Chemical Co. plant, an empty eyesore for more than 20 years at the corner of Edison Highway and East Biddle Street. Meanwhile, residents of neighboring blocks say they have not been officially told how to protect themselves from potentially hazardous dust released during the demolition.

"I only know about it because our pastor mentioned it last Sunday," said Margaret Jackson, who has lived a block west of Edison Highway, in the 1400 block of N. Ellwood Ave., for over a decade.

The Rev. Samuel Murray, who presides over Good Tidings Baptist Church, about a quarter-mile downhill from the plant, said he heard about the demolition from Redmond.

Roughly two dozen people gathered on a recent Saturday afternoon at Good Tidings to get pre-demolition advice from two Johns Hopkins-based "community coordinators" who focus on the health effects of urban construction and industry.

"A lot of times what happens is you all are the last people to know that something is about to happen in your neighborhood," said Patricia Tracey, who was joined by her colleague Barbara Bates-Hopkins, both from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center in Urban Environmental Health. "We live in a very contaminated city, that's the bottom line. Dust itself — you don't know what's in it."

Residents' concerns are based on two decades of intermittent hazardous waste cleanup at the site.

The facility made Fuller-O'Brien paints for more than 30 years before being sold in the mid-1980s to Ainsworth, which specialized in marine paint, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment. Production stopped at the Berea facility in 1988.

Seven years later, state inspectors found hundreds of 55-gallon drums filled with hazardous and explosive chemicals stored in, under and around the building. One drum was leaking, and the chemicals stored included vinyl chloride, a gas that causes liver cancer.

By September 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency had cleaned up the abandoned containers of paints and solvents at a cost of $1.5 million.

After the Baltimore Development Corp. submitted an application to the state in the mid-2000s to voluntarily clean up the site — anticipating a future sale — an environmental assessment identified problem areas on the property.

Based on advice from the Hopkins advisers, the group at Good Tidings began to establish a network of people to disseminate information about the demolition.

"A contractor should have found out who the community associations are," Tracey said. "Who are they going to hire from the community to oversee the safety of the residents? Someone needs to watch them."

In October, the city hired contractor Potts & Callahan Inc. to demolish the factory for about $330,000. Paul Collison, who works in the firm's demolition department, did not reply to phone and email inquiries.

Appended to the demolition contract is the Baltimore City Standard Specifications book, commonly called the "Green Book," which governs environmental precautions— such as "pre-wetting" to keep dust down — that must be followed when demolishing structures, said Cathy Powell, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Department of General Services, which is overseeing the cleanup.

Terrance Hancock, a Baltimore Development Corp. senior economic development officer for East Baltimore, said that after the demolition was complete the BDC would request proposals for the site.

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