More tests ordered to find cause of odor at Locust House Residents complain housing complex smells like sewer gas or garbage


The county has called for more tests to determine the origin of an intermittent foul odor at Locust House, a subsidized housing complex for the elderly and disabled in Westminster.

Air quality tests on samples taken from the building interior three months ago attribute the odor to gasoline, possibly found in a paint-stripping chemical. Levels detected were too low to pose any hazard to residents, according to a report prepared by Scientific Control Inc. of Edgewood.

"We are satisfied with the results of that specific test but not with the conclusion as far as the origin is concerned," said Greg Keller, a county livability code inspector. "It still does not account for the smell."

Residents, who have complained about the odor for several years, have most often compared the smell to sewer gas or rotten garbage.

Lori Millender, former resident manager of the 18-year-old building, complained of "noticeable sewer gas odor in the lobby and in second floor units," in a document filed Oct. 6, 1997, with the county.

No tenant has mentioned a paint smell in the several complaints filed with Keller's office in the county Bureau of Permits and Inspections.

"The report does not match anecdotal information that tenants have repeatedly given," said resident Michael Melsheimer.

Keller has ordered test borings of the soil outside the brick building, constructed on the site of an abandoned distillery near Westminster City Hall.

The work would be at the expense of Humphrey Management Co. of Silver Spring, the building owner. Keller estimates the job will cost about $2,000.

"We have ordered the tests and have no reason to believe the company will not have them done," said Keller.

Borings should go about 13 feet down, below the foundation wall, and should be taken on both sides and possibly at the front of the building, Keller said.

"The process is not that complicated but it is time-consuming," he said. "You can analyze for residue."

Responding to residents' complaints, the owner hired an environmental consultant to test the air. Scientific Control of Edgewood used air samples, collected December 22 in the lobby, to determine the cause of the odor.

The air was captured in a vacuum sampling canister provided by the Maryland Department of the Environment. Instructions were to open the valve as soon as an odor episode occurred and contact Scientific Control.

The environmental consultants also examined every apartment in the seven-story building, looking for gasoline, paints and refinishing chemicals.

"These materials were found in significant quantities in one apartment and to a lesser degree in two others," the report said.

But the canister contained an air sample captured in the lobby, nowhere near the apartments or trash chutes.

With the odor recurring persistently and unpredictably, Keller has been called to the building frequently. The odor is "very strong whenever it is present," he said.

Melsheimer said he fears that rotting drums buried years ago on the property are causing the odor.

"Essentially, there are issues that still need to be resolved," Keller said. "Outside soil samples would determine the possibility of entry from air pockets outside the building."

While several of the nearly 100 residents have said they are dissatisfied with the results of an air quality tests, they say they are afraid to complain to the management.

Many have said they have eye and respiratory problems, whenever the odor is present. They detect the smell most often in the lobby, particularly as they enter the building.

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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