In plants' shadows, Curtis Bay has doubts that it will get relief; Residents, companies see many differences from Wagner's Point


From his house on Olmstead Street in Curtis Bay, Frank Lewis looks east toward the lights of FMC Corp.'s pesticide and herbicide plant. To the west, he watches two oil trucks running a red light on Pennington Avenue. Gazing south, his nose wiggles at a smell coming from the direction of a rendering plant.

"Can you feel all these chemicals?" asks Lewis. "Wagner's Point is being bought out. What about us?"

The impending relocation of tiny Wagner's Point has spurred discussion in Curtis Bay, the much larger neighborhood about a mile to the west, on the opposite side of southern Baltimore's chemical plants. Lewis -- a longtime community association president who confronts drug dealers with a bullhorn -- says he believes that Curtis Bay residents should push for the same kind of buyout package that Wagner's Point residents are expected to receive this spring.

Lewis has begun discussing a campaign for a buyout of several Curtis Bay blocks with several neighbors whose homes were shaken by explosions at the FMC and the Condea Vista chemical plants last year. He also has sought advice from local environmentalists, who seem cool to the idea. A town meeting for residents is being planned for this spring.

"A buyout makes a lot of sense to me," says Donica Frank, 29, as she shovels snow from the steps of the house she rents on Spruce Street.

Frank has two children, Jennifer, 4, and Emily, 3, undergoing chemotherapy for kidney cancer. She believes -- but has no evidence -- that those illnesses might be linked to chemicals she smells. "The air stinks around here, and I don't trust it," she says. "If there was any kind of chance to go, I'd take it in a second."

Two dozen Curtis Bay residents, interviewed during the past week, said they were skepti- cal that a buyout would happen in their neighborhood. But each acknowledged following news of the Wagner's Point relocation closely. This week, the Baltimore City Council agreed to take by eminent domain all property -- 90 homes and four businesses -- in that tiny neighborhood. The area will be used for a sewage plant expansion.

'Make a similar argument'

The city's buyout seems to end a yearlong bid by Wagner's Point residents to get relief. Residents also successfully solicited Condea Vista and the state and federal governments for additional money to aid the relocation. For homeowners, the total aid packages could be worth more than $60,000 each.

"Just think about Curtis Bay," says Wagner's Point homeowner Rod Sterry. "They are just as close to FMC as we are. They could make a similar argument for getting out."

But the two areas are hardly similar. Wagner's Point has 270 residents. Curtis Bay has about 3,000. While Wagner's Point is tightly surrounded by the petrochemical industry, most of the bigger plants sit on Curtis Bay's eastern flank, with several hundred yards of water separating them from houses. Curtis Bay residents have often expressed concern about the high number of children with asthma, but suspicions about cancer and other illnesses are not as strong as in Wagner's Point.

"I'm satisfied down here, and I don't think we're in the same situation as Wagner's Point," says David Schuyler, newly elected president of the Community of Curtis Bay Association. "If the city or industry want to pay me $65,000 for my house, that's fine. But I'd probably want to rent it back."

Lack of evidence

Chemical executives say they do not see a Curtis Bay buyout as necessary or viable. Industry officials have often pointed to the lack of scientific evidence showing any link between chemical exposure and illness in southern Baltimore. State data show unusually high levels of cancer in Curtis Bay's area during the 1980s, but figures for recent years suggest the cancer rate is not statistically different than that for the city or state.

"The Wagner's Point people are entirely surrounded. The circumstances are a lot different in Curtis Bay," says David Mahler, environmental manager for Condea Vista. Adds Enrique Bertran, the FMC official who chairs the Chemical Industry Council of Maryland, a trade group: "You could ask the question, 'Where will it stop?' "

Possible buffer

Not until, Lewis hopes, the dozens of avenues within two blocks of Curtis Bay's eastern edge are gone. The land, residents say, might be used as a buffer zone to the chemical companies, or as a site for another district courthouse. To prepare for a buyout campaign, Lewis has been investigating chemical companies, going as far as to disguise himself and wander into the plants to inspect them.

'Could be the end'

One recent night, he drives through the small companies immediately east and south of Curtis Bay: specialty chemical firms, machine shops, an oil tank farm.

He points out a 30-foot-tall salt pile on railroad land that some residents blame for hurting the finish of their cars. He worries about the security of the area's chemicals. Unlocked railroad cars full of chemicals are parked along Shell Road, and the guard shacks at two large plants are unmanned.

"If that blew up," he says at each plant, "it could be the end of Curtis Bay."

Pub Date: 3/11/99

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