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Maryland battles bedbugs at highway agency

State Highway Administration workers on the lookout for bed bug infestation.
State Highway Administration workers on the lookout for bed bug infestation. (Associated Press)

Employees of the State Highway Administration's Baltimore headquarters are being urged to speak up if they see something suspicious at the agency's Baltimore headquarters.

Terrorists?

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No. Bedbugs.

Starting under the Democratic administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and continuing almost a year into the Republican regime of Gov. Larry Hogan, the agency that builds and maintains 17,000 lane-miles of Maryland roads has been struggling to purge its building of the blood-sucking insects.

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For the past 14 months, the almost 1,000 employees at the building the SHA has occupied on North Calvert Street since 1959 have been receiving email after email — at least 26 in all — describing the agency's struggles with the creature known to scientists as Cimex lectularius.

Agency officials insist the building isn't infested with the creatures. Spokesman Dave Buck said each of the bedbug findings since October 2014 (there have been at least 10) has been a separate incident involving individual insects.

"Bedbugs come and go on people and their clothes and bags and whatever they're bringing with them," Buck said.

Despite repeated visits by exterminators, the persistent vermin have continued to drop in — with the most recent sighting coming this week. And employees, while asking that their names not be published, are expressing frustration with management's response, which has included bedbug identification training for workers.

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A trail of emails from SHA management to agency employees — copies of which were obtained by The Baltimore Sun — recount the agency's struggles with the six-legged invaders.

The story begins with an Oct. 22, 2014, message from Melinda Peters, the since-departed administrator of the agency.

Peters broke the news that a guard had spotted bedbugs on two chairs by the Madison Street security desk. She said a pest control contractor confirmed the presence of the parasites but concluded that their incursion was an "isolated issue."

The next month, SHA workers received an update along with a picture of Sonny, a bedbug-sniffing dog employed by Western Pest Control. A top agency official said that while Sonny found no bugs, the dog "sensed a potential recent presence of a bug" in four areas of the building.

The SHA is not the only state government agency to have bedbug problems recently.

In October, 150 workers at the comptroller's office in the State Center complex were given a week off while exterminators hired by the Department of General Services sought to eradicate bedbugs on the fourth floor of 301 W. Preston St.

Unlike that building, the SHA headquarters is managed by the agency that occupies it. And despite an annual budget of $1.8 billion fattened by money from Hogan's cancellation of the Baltimore Red Line, the agency has found the bedbugs harder to eradicate than a $2.9 billion transit project.

In November 2014, SHA officials confirmed another bedbug presence in its fourth-floor procurement office. A week later, there came another sighting. The insects were back in January, hanging out in a third-floor men's room.

After new sightings in February and March, the agency reported that Sonny had received reinforcements — Angel and Rotund — to perform a "complete K-9 inspection" of the building. They sniffed out the presence of bugs on the first floor but none of the elusive critters were spotted.

In June and again in September, deputy director of administration Nettie V. Millard warned employees to secure confidential documents and put away food items and utensils for the agency's "second quarterly HQ complex-wide bedbug inspection."

"If you see something, say something," Millard wrote, borrowing a line from anti-terrorism campaigns.

In mid-December, victory appeared to be in sight. Willie Doolittle, manager of operations and facilities services, reported that the quarterly inspection on Dec. 15 found "no alerts or any evidence of a bedbug presence."

The triumph was short-lived. Three days after the clean inspection, there was another confirmed bedbug sighting. Then, last Monday, another.

Doolittle sent out an email using language familiar from earlier messages.

"The question you may ask is: Why not treat the entire complex? The answer is simple yet complex. According to the pest control experts, at this time there is not an infestation at the HQ Complex," the email said. It went on to describe bedbugs as "hitchhikers" that can be picked up virtually anywhere.

"Your continued vigilance is greatly appreciated," employees were told. "Thank you."

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