The owner of the South Baltimore warehouse that until recently housed hazardous materials is a victim of "hysteria," his lawyer said.
Edward Louis Birtic, the 73-year-old owner of the Clarkson Street warehouse, is an "ordinary businessman" who, contrary to allegations, never paid neighborhood children to remove or dump any chemicals, said his lawyer, Clifford L. Hardwick.
Birtic, who lives in Finksburg in Carroll County, has not spoken publicly since his warehouse became the focus of government and media attention in late May after neighbors complained that chemicals stored on the site were making them sick.
The complaints about the warehouse were hype, Hardwick said. He produced documents last week showing that the Maryland Department of the Environment was aware of the chemicals at the site last December after an inspection and cited Birtic for storing hazardous substances there.
"This is an event that has been blown so out of proportion," he said.
Richard Collins, director of MDE's Waste Management Administration, said he thinks the department acted appropriately when it returned to the warehouse in May to test soil and substances there.
Hardwick said South Baltimore residents were "victimized by misinformation," referring to a health emergency declared at the site a month ago by Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city's health department chief.
"The declaration of a public emergency was so outrageous that it did not justify lip service at the time," Hardwick wrote in a letter last week to Rena I. Steinzor, director of the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic, which is representing the neighborhood.
Beilenson made the declaration hours after 11 South Baltimore residents were taken to area hospitals for possible chemical exposure. Beilenson said he declared the emergency inside the warehouse, where hazardous chemicals were being housed, in an effort to get them removed.
"No one ever declared Clarkson Street an emergency," Beilenson said. "The danger was in the building, and the MDE test analysis backs that up."
Birtic is being investigated by the attorney general's office for possible environmental violations because of the handling and storage of chemicals at the warehouse and at one in Southwest Baltimore.
"There is certainly a pending criminal investigation," said Hans Miller, supervising attorney for the environmental crimes unit.
The investigation was prompted by neighborhood complaints about the warehouse and the handling of chemicals stored at the site. Neighbors said Birtic paid children $10 to $60 a day to clean chemicals and debris from the warehouse in January.
Hardwick said Birtic was trying to keep neighborhood kids out of the warehouse by hiring them to clean trash away from the outside of the building.
"He was trying to keep the kids away from harm by giving them something to do outside the warehouse," the lawyer said. "None of the kids were paid to have anything to do with the construction material."
Residents met with city and state officials last week and repeated their charges that Birtic's actions endangered their health.
"My 10-year-old son will tell you where he dumped it, how much he dumped and how much he got paid," said Kathy Singer, who has lived in the 1700 block of Clarkson Street for 25 years.
"I seen the kids in there with my own eyes," resident Debbie Boyd said after Thursday's meeting. "They were standing in the windows, throwing stuff out."
Residents complain of breathing problems, skin irritations and headaches that they say result from chemicals stored in the warehouse. City and state agencies have told the community that areas in and around the building now pose little or no threat.
Birtic had 11 barrels of acidic materials, including paint, paint thinner and hydrochloric acid, removed from the building in early June after scrutiny from the city.
Soil samples from the site were tested by the Maryland Department of the Environment and showed low levels of methyl ethyl ketone, a substance used in paint thinner and glues, as well as traces of "typical contaminants you'd find along a railroad line," Collins said.
The warehouse is next to train tracks.
Collins said there were not enough contaminants in the soil to pose a health hazard to the community. "Still," he said, "I wouldn't suggest having kids play in the soil there. It's not clean soil."
The city has spent at least $65,000 in the past six weeks related to the warehouse problems, said Tony White, spokesman for Mayor Martin O'Malley. Included in that amount are the costs of sending fire and hazardous-materials equipment to the site, dispatching Public Works crews to board up the building, and erecting a fence around the property to keep out residents.
White said the city plans to bill Birtic for the costs. Birtic is due in housing court Aug. 2 for an uncorrected 1994 housing violation that city officials used as a reason to board up the building in May.
Birtic has been trying to sell the building for three years, Hardwick said. His client's hands are now tied, he said, because of a levy on the property -- a court-ordered seizure to satisfy a debt owed to a creditor.
Hardwick said that if and when the levy is lifted, Birtic will be free to sell the building.
"That's all he's wanted to do since day one," Hardwick said.