Baltimore housing officials have ordered several two-story heaps of rubble leveled after Upton neighborhood residents began complaining that dust from the debris of the recently-imploded Murphy Homes complex was making them sick.
For weeks, residents say they watched while contractors wearing masks and special suits ground bricks, mortar and concrete into fine gravel. Yet those living in the community say they have no protection from the daily dust storms that blow through the area, leaving a thick layer of dust on almost everything.
"You can write your name on your furniture," said Martha A. Chapman, of the 700 block of Brune St. A 65-foot pile of debris is visible from her two-story red brick rowhouse.
Chapman and her neighbors say they are willing to regularly clean the freshly-fallen dust off their cars and dining room tables, but say they are tired of having starchy throats, bloodshot eyes and breathing problems.
Upton residents also say the rubble smells like rodent waste, forcing them to endure what former residents of the city's public housing complex, who now live nearby, described as the "unmistakable smell of Murphy Homes."
"You know, if you find dust on your tongue, you have even more down inside you," said JoAnne Poole, one of Chapman's neighbors.
Housing officials rebuffed residents' claim that debris contained toxic material that would make them sick, but have vowed to deal with the problem.
For two months, the Brune Street neighbors lobbied city and state officials, including Lt. Gov. Kathleen Townsend, to have the problem corrected, but said their pleas were ignored until Sept. 3, when city Housing and Development Authority Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III visited the site.
After touring the site, which has more than 75,000 cubic yards of debris, Henson ordered contractors to reduce the pile of rubble and redouble their efforts to reduce the dust.
Since Sept. 3, Centennial Contractors, in charge of the site cleanup, has been lowering the heaps by 3 feet per day. But company officials say it will be six to eight weeks before the twisted mounds of wire, cement and rusted metal are separated, crushed and properly stored.
The emergency removal, which includes contractors receiving overtime on Saturdays, will add $190,000 to the contractor's $3.5 million contract, Housing Department spokesman Zack Germroth said.
The bulk of the material will be trucked to Maryland towns, where it will be used in road construction. More than 30 percent will be stored on the Murphy Homes' site until spring, when developers will use it for roads and house foundations for Heritage Crossing development. The Development, a $56 million planned residential community, will have 75 low-income rental rowhouses and 185 for-sale townhouses.
Until construction begins, the remaining gravel will be spread evenly across the site and covered with sod and hay, Germroth said.
The site is regularly inspected by city and state health officials, who concluded no toxic or hazardous materials are on the site, Germroth said.
"The site has been very clean. There is no contamination," said Ronald Lipscomb, president of Duracon Construction, the company responsible for crushing the debris into gravel.
Lead paint, asbestos and rodents in the Murphy Homes, built in 1963, were removed before the demolition.
But Dr. Katherine S. Squibb, a toxicology professor at the University of Maryland, warns that many pesticides, bacteria and other viruses may have been absorbed into the concrete and released as dust during the crushing process.
Dust usually does not cause people to become sick, Squibb said, but it can irritate a person's pre-existing medical condition.
"If you have some sort of lung problem, obviously you don't want a buildup of dust on your lungs," Squibb said.
Contractors are reducing dust by watering the debris piles, even when water restrictions were in effect.
"At drought time, we had eight people holding fire hoses all day," Lipscomb said.
Residents say the smell of decomposing matter seemed to pick up as the contractors sprayed water.
"It's gagging," Poole said.
Squibb, who has not been to the site, said several layers of mold and fungus underneath the debris may be causing the smell.
Housing officials say once the material is reduced, spread out, and covered, the smell should go.
"At the end of the process, the result will be well worth the effort," Germroth said.