UM analysis faults officials after Oct. blast Wagner's Point residents faced health risk, it says


In the hour after an explosion at Condea Vista's chemical plant Oct. 13, residents in nearby Wagner's Point struggled to find out what happened.

One woman called 911 and was put on hold three times. Susan Skrzecz of Leo Street approached a fire battalion chief but was rebuffed. And fire officials who responded to the blast provided no instructions to residents. The result, concludes a report by the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic, was panic.

Some residents barricaded themselves in their homes. Others tried to leave Wagner's Point along a partly blocked road. A few residents, desperate for information, approached the three-alarm fire to watch, a decision that could have endangered them, the law clinic report says.

"Had the explosion at Condea Vista involved an acutely toxic chemical, dozens -- if not hundreds -- of people would be dead today," says the nine-page report delivered yesterday to city, state and federal officials.

Clinic director Rena I. Steinzor, who represents Wagner's Point and Fairfield residents, said Richard McKoy, the city emergency management director; Jane T. Nishida, the state environmental secretary; and W. Michael McCabe, the regional Environmental Protection Agency administrator, should "immediately convene a task force" to address accident response in Baltimore.

The local emergency-response plan had been out of date for years, she said. City officials say they approved a new one in the past few weeks.

McKoy could not be reached. A spokeswoman for McCabe said he could not comment without seeing the report. Bernard A. Penner, enforcement and compliance coordinator for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said Nishida was aware of the community's concerns but it was "too early" to address the question of a task force.

Condea Vista's environment manager, David L. Mahler, said he understands residents' fears but the authority to notify residents lies with local government.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres of the Fire Department said the explosion, though frightening, did not send toxins into populated areas and did not warrant a warning. He said the department had done a "good job" using the media to calm fears.

"Whether people stayed in their homes or not after the accident did not factor into our operations," said Torres. "We did not feel there was a danger."

Several Wagner's Point residents reported eye and throat irritation in the hours after the accident, and three went to local hospitals. City health officials have provided mental health counseling to local children, many of whom were frightened by the explosion.

Pub Date: 11/21/98

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