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State sues owner of historic West Baltimore asylum, alleging illegal demolition spread asbestos into air

State sues owner of historic West Baltimore asylum, alleging illegal demolition spread asbestos into air
The state has sued the owner of the former St. Vincent’s Infant Asylum, alleging its demolition violated asbestos laws. The West Baltimore site, shown in this 2018 photo, was home to structures built between 1860 and 1910 to provide homes and medical services. (Catherine Rentz / Baltimore Sun)

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said Tuesday that his office has sued the owner of the former St. Vincent’s Infant Asylum, alleging the illegal demolition of the historic West Baltimore property violated asbestos laws.

The lawsuit, filed Friday on behalf of the Maryland Department of the Environment, seeks to force 1411 Division Street LLC to clean up the asbestos at the site.

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It also asks a Baltimore Circuit Court judge to order fines of up to $25,000 per day — beginning last year — for each alleged violation of state law by the property owner and the demolition contractor, TCG Development, and its owner, William Culler. Such fines could amount to millions of dollars.

“Lacking the proper notifications and without following required removal procedures, the owner and contractor exposed workers and neighbors, including children, to asbestos,” Frosh said in a statement. “The exposure in the neighborhood has continued for more than a year.”

Asbestos, a hazardous air pollutant, was formerly used in construction materials such as floor tiles and roofing products.

“We are asking the court for significant penalties,” Frosh said. “The reckless conduct that we allege in the complaint is not only a violation of Maryland law, but also a threat to the health and safety of those subjected to the asbestos exposure.”

Attempts Tuesday to reach 1411 Division Street LLC of New York City, its attorney, TCG Development of Baltimore and Culler were not immediately successful.

Buildings at 1411 Division St. in the Upton neighborhood were torn down Feb. 26, 2018, without a proper permit. While the demolition was in progress, the city of Baltimore issued a “stop work” notice. But it was too late for the former St. Vincent Infant Asylum — built between 1860 and 1910 — which was reduced to rubble.

After receiving a complaint about the demolition, a state environmental inspector took several samples of debris that tested positive for asbestos.

In August, the state environmental agency ordered 1411 Division Street to hire a licensed contractor to remove demolition debris by the end of that month and properly dispose of waste. The defendants failed to clean up the site by Sept. 1 and debris containing asbestos is exposed to the air, creating a danger to passersby, Frosh alleged. The suit alleges that means Division Street violated the order — and continues to violate it — under a penalty of a maximum fine of $25,000 per day.

The state’s lawsuit claims 20 violations of state law, including that neither the owner of the property nor the contractor posted signs warning of asbestos, as required by law. The lawsuit also alleges neither was licensed in Maryland to demolish a property containing materials with asbestos.

Culler and TCG also “failed to provide workers with protective clothing and equipment, including respirators, during demolition and failed to take precautions to minimize dust or prevent asbestos dust from becoming airborne,” the suit alleges.

Originally built for Catholic nuns to provide housing and medical services to children and women, the structure was converted to the Carver Hall apartments in the early 1940s, offering affordable rentals largely to African American tenants. It closed in 2013 because of disrepair.

The 1411 Division Street LLC bought the 32,400-square-foot property in 2016. It was valued in 2017 at $754,000.

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