Santa's mixed reception Neighborhood: At Wagner's Point, some welcome holiday gifts from nearby chemical plants; others who want relocation funds doubt the companies' motives.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Working from the back of a maroon Chevy pickup, the man in the familiar red suit and white beard hands out apples, oranges and boxes of groceries on Leo Street. And for a glorious Saturday this month, the foul air of Wagner's Point smells sweeter.

Santa Claus, as every child here knows, comes each year to this heavily industrial neighborhood not from the North Pole, but from Delta Chemical Corp.

Santa's visit is one way South Baltimore's petrochemical plants subsidize Wagner's Point's 280 residents. For years, the plants that surround the tiny neighborhood have quietly given away holiday meals, donated heating fuel, even paid rents and mortgages when money was tight.

The little-known practice exposes the contradictory relationship between industry and community on the Fairfield Peninsula. Residents complain bitterly about chemical pollution, even as they depend on the generosity of the polluters.

This Christmas, such gifts have been so generous that residents have begun to express suspicion about the companies' intentions. But to other locals, the donations are a reminder of the security they will lose when Wagner's Point residents are relocated outside Baltimore's Chemical Belt, probably next year.

"There would be no Christmas without the chemical industry," says Betty Thomas, a Leo Street homeowner who helps steer eager-to-donate companies to the neighborhood's needy. "Only now do people realize what they are losing. Where are you going to go and find another community like this?"

Wagner's Pointers have decided to try. This year, after two major chemical accidents and a string of cancer cases, fearful residents asked for relocation, and the city, state and federal governments promised to help buy out the neighborhood: 90 homes, two contracting businesses and Jerry & Jethrow's Bar.

To complete a financial package for relocation, residents also have asked the chemical companies to contribute roughly $300,000 each. But so far, the companies' response has been cool: One plant, Condea Vista, has consented to help. Even as they rebuffed the request, companies such as Delta, Citgo Petroleum and FMC Corp. handed out holiday largess -- more gifts, many residents say, than ever before.

Companies say their charity is little more than old-fashioned neighborliness. But community leaders and local environmentalists wonder aloud if the companies are using the donations to buy silence and take the steam out of residents' demands for relocation money. Rose Hindla, a leader of the relocation effort, says she refused to sign up her son Eric, 8, to visit Delta's Santa this year. Eric's grandmother took him instead.

"You could call it a bribe," says Hindla. "I'd like to think their intentions are sincere. But the companies should know that what we really want for Christmas is their promise to help us move out."

Thomas, a retired nurse, sees the gifts as incentive to stay. The chemical industry even uses her to dole out their donations. She says she so loves living next to industry that she has publicly promised to defy any government order to move.

City officials say Thomas' frequent calls to the mayor opposing relocation were a key reason why the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke held out for months before expressing support for a buyout.

From the Leo Street rowhouse she shares with her husband, Thomas, 64, keeps an eye out for neighbors for any signs of economic distress. "These companies are under no obligation to do these things for us," she said. "But I don't even have to ask them twice."

This year, Delta's annual Santa Claus party -- a decade-old tradition -- was its biggest ever, residents and employees said. Citgo donated fire extinguishers and organized a toy drive. At a public meeting last week, a veteran police sergeant said herbicide maker FMC had handed out more food baskets in South Baltimore than any company in memory.

Condea Vista, after an October explosion at its plant, gave away Thanksgiving dinners -- the first time the company made such a contribution in Wagner's Point, Thomas says. Condea Vista also handed her a $500 check to buy toys for local residents.

"We messed up in October," says Jim Pavao, the Condea plant manager. "And we understood from Betty Thomas that there was a need at Thanksgiving. So we acted."

In some cases, the chemical contributions have been even more generous. Citgo helped Patricia Graffious pay her rent and replace her clothing when fire destroyed her home in the 3700 block of Leo St. Virginia Alt says Delta and Citgo paid most of her energy bills in 1996 and 1997. They even picked up $125 of her rent several times. "The companies kept us alive," she says.

This summer, Parker Dean, the health, safety and environmental manager for FMC, wrote a check to cover the doctor's bill of Debbie Hindla's son, who had severe nose bleeds after that company's May accident. (FMC maintains the accident caused no health problems off-site. But Dean, acknowledging that "our lawyers might not like it," says writing the check was the right thing to do.)

Publicly, company officials say such payments are not related to the question of relocation. But at least one firm, Citgo, has cited its donations in defense of its refusal to contribute to the community's move.

In an Oct. 27 letter to Hindla, turning down the the community's request for relocation money, Morris, the Citgo manager, wrote that his company had already done much for residents: $1,100 for new art desks and chairs at Curtis Bay Elementary, Thanksgiving food baskets, heating oil to keep Wagner's Point warm. "I think that my actions have shown that Citgo takes its position in the community very seriously," he wrote.

Other companies have been more careful to downplay their charitable efforts. Delta invited dozens of children to its Santa party, but tried to bar reporters. "We don't want anyone to be able to say we were using this for public relations," said co-owner John Besson.

Inside Wagner's Point, the day was undeniably a public spectacle. At the plant, dozens of children and parents lined up outside a tent to speak with Santa (Delta master electrician Bill Bentley) and his elf, welder Walt Witacre, wearing a costume created by Delta co-owner Becky Besson, John's sister. Each child left with cookies and a present.

Afterward, Santa made stops at two dozen homes. At 3711 Leo, Santa waved to Adrienne Long's grandchildren as Delta operations manager Frank Peterson handed Long a box containing margarine, potatoes, stuffing, spaghetti, rolls, canned peas, soup and ham. "Merry Christmas to you from Delta Chemical," said Peterson.

"Thank you," said Long, happily. "And I hope Santa brings Delta everything you want."

Pub Date: 12/23/98

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