Carroll County parks workers hastily removed the "hazardous materials" warnings from trash barrels at Freedom Park Monday in the wake of a complaint from a Sykesville man.
County and state EPA officials contended that the small amount of dried paint in the barrels is not a health hazard and that leaving the stickers on the barrels was an oversight, which they have corrected.
Work crews spray-painted the stickers that they could not remove and made them unreadable.
No law requires the county government to remove the hazard labels, but it would be a good practice, Quentin W. Banks, Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman, said.
"It wasn't a real smart idea to put these out without painting over the warning labels," he said.
Michael Willinger, whose complaint prompted the sticker removals, said that action was not enough.
On a Sunday morning stroll through Freedom Park, Mr. Willinger noticed "hazardous material" warnings at the top of every 55-gallon steel drum that the county had converted to trash cans.
"I saw a series of open 55-gallon drums, which still had dried paint," said Mr. Willinger, a salesman for a print shop in Baltimore. "All the drums had a No. 3 EPA sticker, the highest health hazard."
Many of the containers in the new park outside Sykesville had dried paint in the bottoms and along the interior sides.
Mr. Willinger said hazardous materials should not be anywhere near a park where 900 children play ball every week.
But county officials emphasized that there is no danger from the dried paint. They said the solvent, the only toxic material in the paint, is a drying agent and has long since dissipated.
At one time, the drums were full of a latex highway paint, the kind used to stripe roads and parking lots. Now the cans are empty of all but a smattering of dried residue and no longer considered hazardous, said state environmental officials who visited the park Monday.
Mr. Willinger said he was surprised at the explanation he received from the EPA Immediate Response Team, which he called Sunday.
Mr. Banks said the empty drums are safe for people to use as trash cans and pose no threat to the environment. He said a member of the Maryland Department of the Environment's emergency response division checked the drums Monday and found no danger.
"It's the same hazard you'd have from walking down the road. What hazard would the lines on the road pose to you?" Mr. Banks said.
He said the paint in liquid form is flammable and poisonous because it contains the solvent. But the solvent evaporates rapidly and the dried paint is not hazardous, he said.
Mr. Willinger remained unconvinced.
"Just across the street from the park, the prison has actual trash cans," he said. "Can't the park have the same?"
Carroll County officials have been recycling the paint cans and using them as trash receptacles at several area parks for years, officials said. Liners inside the cans prevent most of the liquid from seeping and staining the cans.
"We never gave the stickers a thought," said Mike Whitson, chief of the bureau of land management.
He, too, stressed that "the [remaining] paint is dry now and poses no hazard."
After the county highway department uses all the paint, the cans are ideally suited for trash, Mr. Whitson said. EPA standards say that when the contents reach 2 inches or less, the container is regarded as empty.
"Safety-wise, they are fine," Mr. Whitson said. "We wouldn't put them out if they weren't."
County crews empty trash from the cans weekly and haul the contents to the county landfill. Chips or flakes from latex paint would not damage the landfill, officials said. The landfill does not accept oil-based paint cans.
The stickers, printed in bold, black letters, detailed the contents of the cans and warned of a potential health hazard.
"It said the contents are known to cause lung disease and cancer," said Mr. Willinger.
But Mr. Whitson said reusing the drums is responsible recycling that saves the county money. Large trash cans, the kind that can handle the volume generated at county parks, can cost as much as $700 each and are frequently stolen, he said.
"They are not recycling," Mr. Willinger said. "They are actually putting trash in the parks."
Mike Lawson, vice president of Mid-Atlantic Metals, said he would want nothing to do with the drums.
"Paint is hazardous whether it's wet or dry," he said.
But the Gordon Garratt Co. cleans and reconditions the drums at its plant in Baltimore. Owner Don Garratt said he resells the drums for about $18 each, frequently back to the original owners, who refill them with the same products.
"The cans can be reconditioned five to 10 times before they are scrapped," said Mr. Garratt. "There is no danger once all the solvents are out."