In a gesture of "neighborliness," the chemical manufacturer Condea Vista Co. announced yesterday that its South Baltimore plant would contribute to the relocation of residents in heavily industrial Wagner's Point.
The announcement, which surprised residents and South Baltimore's petrochemical industry, made Condea Vista the first business to commit publicly to relocating the neighborhood's 270 people.
And while Condea Vista specified no amount of funding and has not acknowledged wrongdoing, the news seemed to encourage local residents. Wary of foul-smelling air and a string of cancer deaths in their tiny neighborhood, Wagner's Point residents asked government and industry last spring to finance a buyout of their homes.
"We have a population of people, of neighbors, who believe this is an appropriate area for industry but not for residents," said David L. Mahler, environmental manager for Condea Vista, which is owned by a German holding company. "We will negotiate with Wagner's Point, and we will assist them in whatever we determine in negotiation is a fair amount."
Today, seven months after the death of longtime community association president Jeannette Skrzecz sparked residents' campaign for a buyout, Wagner's Point for the first time has commitments from the city, state and federal governments, as well as industry, to fund relocation. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's administration has pledged fair market value for homes, the federal government has appropriated $750,000, and the state has promised up to $2 million to help residents find comparable homes elsewhere.
Upon hearing of Condea Vista's announcement, joyous residents said they expected that this would be their last holiday season in Wagner's Point.
"This makes my Thanksgiving," said Rose Hindla, a mother and pawnshop worker who lives on Leo Street and has led the buyout effort. "We've come a long way. I'm pleased, but I want to sit down with Vista and see more from the companies."
Buyouts and relocations of neighborhoods and towns near petrochemical plants have become more common in the past decade, particularly in Texas and Louisiana, as companies seek to avert legal battles and bolster their public image. This year, Condea Vista committed $13.8 million to buy out 600 residents of a small community next to its plant in Westlake, La.
That relocation is representative of other buyouts, which have been funded by either industry or government, but not both. The mix of funds committed to Wagner's Point makes it unique.
Wilma Subra, an environmental consultant in New Iberia, La., said in an interview last month that a relocation by government and industry "would, as far as I know, set a national precedent."
In the meantime, Condea Vista's announcement was likely to build pressure on other companies to follow suit.
Last month, lawyers for Wagner's Point residents asked 10 companies to contribute, among them, $3 million of the relocation's estimated $10 million cost. Of that $3 million, $500,000 would fund educational scholarships for neighborhood children. (A similar education fund is part of the Louisiana buyout, court records show).
Two of the 10, oil companies Citgo and Conoco, have refused to participate. And at a meeting Nov. 16 at a South Baltimore library branch, officials for several companies were cool to the proposal.
Leaders of the Chemical Industry Council, a trade group, have said that they saw no financial role for industry in a buyout supported by government funds.
In yesterday's announcement, Condea Vista officials called on other companies to contribute as well. The company also said it believed it could craft an agreement with residents that wouldn't conflict with government plans. "We'd like other companies to join in and do what we're doing," Mahler said.
The initial reaction from other chemical plants was cautious. Executives at Amoco Corp., Chevron, Atotech USA, Delta Chemical, Rhodia Inc. and Shell Oil did not return phone calls or declined to comment yesterday. A spokesman for the pesticide maker FMC Corp., said the company might contribute, but only after government officials acted.
Some chemical executives privately suggested that Condea Vista was trying to make amends for the Oct. 13 explosion at its plant that injured five workers and sent three residents to hospitals. Yesterday, Condea Vista filed a 127-page report on the blast with the Maryland Department of the Environment and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.
Steam triggered blast
The report, obtained by The Sun, says plant officials accidentally triggered the blast by using steam to clean a reactor containing aluminum, aluminum chloride and hydrocarbons. The steam heated the reactor so fast it exploded with the force of 30 pounds of TNT. Plant officials said they will cease using aluminum and will review their procedures for cleaning reactors as a result of the investigation.
Despite the timing, Mahler said there was no connection between the report, Thanksgiving and yesterday's announcement. The company's offer to help Wagner's Point was reviewed for more than a month by senior administrators at the company's U.S. headquarters in Houston and approved by President William Knodel, company sources said.
In a letter sent yesterday to the residents' lawyers, James P. Gillece Jr., a Baltimore attorney representing Condea Vista, wrote: "Condea Vista, although firmly believing that it has done nothing to adversely impact on the neighbors in the past 84 years, in the spirit of being a good neighbor, is willing to begin discussions with you toward reaching an agreement."
Tuesday afternoon, Vista's plant manager and three other employees handed out turkeys to dozens of residents but gave no inkling of the gift to come yesterday.
When the company's letter circulated yesterday afternoon, residents hailed it. That it came from the industry widely viewed as the source of their suffering, made it more important than earlier expressions of sympathy from U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
Jump for joy
At the Leo Street home of the late Jeannette Skrzecz, her daughter Sue literally jumped for joy. Skrzecz's widower, Andy, said Condea Vista's announcement had lifted his spirits for his first Thanksgiving since he lost his wife to cancer.
"I think all the companies will have to help now, and the sooner they agree, the sooner they can get us out of here," he said.
Pub Date: 11/26/98