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Frustrated Mill Hill residents take junkyard to court Neighbors are tired of noise, pollution


After decades of living next to an automobile scrap yard, the people of Mill Hill say they've had enough of the window-shattering explosions, flying car parts and air pollution that's so thick it turns their white marble steps gray.

Several homeowners -- frustrated that their complaints to government agencies haven't reduced the noise and air pollution in their Southwest Baltimore community -- are suing the United Iron and Metal Co., owner of the scrap yard that shreds automobiles and compacts them into large cubes.

The suit, filed in Baltimore Circuit Court last month, claims the homeowners have suffered mental and physical problems as well as damage to their homes because they live so close to the car-shredding operation. The suit seeks $40 million in damages.

Their complaints about the scrap yard date to the 1950s, when the company burned automobiles behind the 2600 block of Wilkens Ave., known as Baltimore's longest block of rowhouses.

Today, the sprawling 18-acre scrap yard -- with mountains of old cars and machinery spewing black smoke -- sits behind that block of 54 traditional rowhouses, with their stained-glass windows and white marble steps.

In addition to the black smoke, fumes and a dirty gray "fluff" that floats into their neighborhood from United Iron, the residents complain most about the explosions, created when automobile gas tanks are accidentally left in cars that are shredded.

Neighborhood residents say the explosions feel like earthquakes and sound like cars driving through their living room walls. The explosions have occurred over the past 20 years -- sometimes once a week, sometimes more than once a day -- shattering windows, light fixtures and dishes.

Some residents also say their walls and pipes have cracked from repeated explosions.

The rowhouses on Wilkens Avenue are "a symbol of old Baltimore, but the back is just destruction. People can't even sit on their back porch for iced tea," said Mary Bontempo, president of St. Benedicts Housing Council in Mill Hill.

In Dianne Hoffman's house on the 2600 block of Wilkens Ave., "Nothing's straight. The walls are pulling away from the baseboards," she said.

Ms. Hoffman and her family are among the seven plaintiffs in the suit against United Iron.

Another plaintiff, Clara Mullins, who lives around the corner on Eagle Street, says she found a piece of hot metal that landed on her back porch after one explosion. Another time, she found a piece of metal embedded in her roof.

"I tried to sell my house five times. They come and hear the noise and they don't want my home," said Ms. Mullins, who has lived there for 20 years.

She has been writing letters complaining of the air and noise pollution to politicians and government officials for several years.

And city and state inspectors have found United Iron in violation of health and environmental laws many times during the past 10 years.

But the company never had to pay a fine until Thursday, when it sent the Maryland Department of the Environment a check for $7,500 to settle a violation of pollution laws, said John Goheen, department spokesman.

The company also has agreed to install a "wet system" for shredding automobiles by Sept. 30, 1994. The system, which will surround cars with water during the shredding process, should eliminate the explosions, state officials say.

United Iron has agreed to take several other steps to prevent air and noise pollution, including paving roads and keeping them washed down, said a consent order signed last week by the company's general manager.

A lawyer for United Iron -- which was sold to its current owners in 1990 -- did not respond to a request for an interview for this article.

Despite United Iron's promises to clean up its act, community leaders and residents are skeptical.

"This is not a plan for improving the plant. It's a plan for expansion," said Ms. Bontempo.

"We have boxes of correspondence [with government officials] dating back 20 years in the basement. With all the paperwork, hearings and talking, nothing has happened. We feel the system has failed us. So we're going through the courts," she said.

Although United Iron has operated on the property since 1912, the pollution problems were minimal for many decades.

One plaintiff in the suit, Alice Clifton, 88, remembers her back yard 53 years ago when she moved to the 2600 block of Wilkens Ave.

"It was beautiful, just beautiful. There were apple trees and kids used to play back there," she said.

Now the scrap yard has expanded to just about 30 feet from her backdoor. She says she can't hang her laundry out to dry anymore because the soot from the scrap yard turns her clothes gray.

Her son, Ernest Clifton, has recently torn up the bathroom floor and is planning to replace it because of damage caused by leaking pipes he believes were cracked by explosions.

Before the David J. Joseph Co. of Cincinnati bought United Iron in 1990, the company was owned by Israel D. Shapiro -- a friend of former Gov. Marvin Mandel -- and his son, James.

As early as the 1950s, neighbors began feeling the effects of the pollution from the scrap yard.

In 1958, after they complained about soot and ash from from burning cars and tires, a court magistrate dismissed the charges, telling the residents, "This is an industrial zone and industry must live also. We're an industrial nation. That's the source of our strength."

In 1969, the company arranged with then City Council President William Donald Schaefer to buy the abandoned cars collected by the city for $1 each and crush them in a new state-of-the-art shredder.

Two years later the shredder was unveiled for local politicians, who were treated to cocktails and a poem about the new machine written by then city Comptroller Hyman A. Pressman.

In 1973, Mr. Schaefer, then mayor, honored United Iron for its efforts to improve the environment.

But the neighbors soon began to feel the polluting effects of the new shredder as it spewed dirty gray "fluff" -- mostly from auto interior stuffing -- into their yards and turned their children's swimming pools brown.

Despite the complaints, United Iron expanded. The company made $2 million during the 1970s and '80s when the state paid it $16 for each abandoned car crushed in the shredder.

The residents -- mostly working-class homeowners -- continued to complain to state environmental officials, the city health department, and to their City Council representatives.

Councilman Timothy D. Murphy, D-6th, has been fielding complaints about the scrap yard since he was elected to the council 11 years ago.

And although he continues to pass the Mill Hill residents' complaints to the city health department and the state environment department, pollution problems have not diminished.

"It's one of the most pressing and chronically disturbing issues I've ever had to deal with. It's been terribly frustrating," he said.

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