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Mobtown Beat

Dust in the Wind

Did city workers fail to follow standard lead-abatement procedures in Union Square?

Photo: Photo courtesy Mary Ernish and Graham Mooney, License: N/A

Photo courtesy Mary Ernish and Graham Mooney

A view of 5 s. stricker street taken on Friday, May 27, before workers scraping paint wrapped the scaffold in plastic.


When Mary Ernish saw the men scraping paint off the front wall of 5 S. Stricker St., near her own home, she immediately thought: lead. Her husband, Graham Mooney, called 311 to report the apparently illegal activity. There were no building permits pulled for the property; the men began work on the Friday afternoon before the Memorial Day long weekend. They drove unmarked pickup trucks and wore no uniforms or insignia, she says.

“They’re not following any of the lead-safe procedures that would suggest to me they are certified,” says Ernish, who has a Master’s degree in health science from the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health.

The house in question is owned by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

Ernish e-mailed Baltimore Housing and says she was told that city code enforcement doesn’t act against city agencies. When the workers returned on Tuesday, they did wrap the scaffold in plastic, she says, containing most of the dust, but they were not wearing any protective gear themselves and seemed unconcerned about what was getting out into the surrounding neighborhood. Ernish called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which in April 2010 promulgated new regulations governing lead-paint removal. An EPA official appears to have opened an investigation. “We’re looking into it,” says Donna Herron, an EPA spokesperson.

Ernish also called the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). She and Mooney took pictures of the workmen and their trucks’ license plates. “We noticed immediately there were no precautions taken,” Mooney says. “One of the guys was wearing a 99-cent paper mask.”

A week later the paint-stripping job was almost done. No stop-work order ever appeared on the house, though no permit other than one for erecting the scaffold had appeared in the online registry kept by Baltimore Housing. On the afternoon of Thursday, June 2, the workers had left the job by 2:30. Plastic taped to the windows had come unstuck and flapped in the stiff breeze. The tenant says she had no notification about the work.

“They didn’t tell me anything,” a woman who answers the front door of the house says. She declines to give her name, or any other details about the house or herself, saying she does not want to antagonize her landlord.

Lead paint, lead-paint chips, and the dust caused by lead-paint removal can be deadly to children if ingested and have been proven to cause brain damage. The paint was banned in Baltimore in 1950 and the rules governing its removal have become stricter ever since.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC), administered by Baltimore Housing but federally funded, has had more than its share of trouble with lead paint. In April The Baltimore Sun reported that HABC had declined to pay nearly $12 million in court judgments to people who have been harmed by lead paint in the agency’s buildings. An estimated $800 million in potential settlements remains to be adjudicated. In testimony before the City Council May 31, Paul Graziano, director of Baltimore Housing, said the agency cannot pay because its budget is fixed and controlled by the federal government. He promised that the agency is doing everything it can to control and abate lead hazards not just in its own buildings, but in all Baltimore buildings.

“With nearly four out of every 10 HABC residents being children, protecting residents is a top priority for HABC,” Graziano said, according to his prepared remarks. “HABC has been in compliance with the Maryland Lead Paint Risk Reduction Act, since it was implemented in 1996. This compliance involves, among other things, a full risk reduction process prior to each new occupancy, including a visual inspection of the unit (interior and exterior) and testing. The lead paint judgments and claims currently being discussed relate to lead exposures that occurred or allegedly occurred 15 to 20 years ago, before enactment of the law.”

Baltimore Housing spokesperson Cheron Porter did not respond to a phone call or e-mailed questions about 5 S. Stricker. Calls to HUD offices Ernish says she contacted were also not returned before press time.

On the morning of Friday, June 3, the workmen are applying a product called Peel Away to the front of the house, which has been scraped almost clean already. “That will be gone by Monday,” the foreman, who gives his name only as Gary, says. After that the men will grind out the mortar joints and repoint the bricks, he says, and that job will be fully enclosed as well, “even though it’s not required.”

Gary, who says he is an HABC employee, is a hefty guy with short gray hair and substantial forearms. He and his crew members are dressed similarly, with work boots, long pants, and collarless shirts. One man smokes a cigar as he totes a bucket of the stripping material, which goes on with the consistency of peanut butter.

“We haven’t used any liquid process,” Gary says. “People in public health don’t understand. This is solid waste.”

This information surprises Ruth Ann Norton of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. “It should be done with [sprayed] water,” she says. “If they did any scraping before the Peel Away went on, and it was not with water [to keep down the dust], then it was dangerous. And that is clear in the [EPA] guidelines.”

Gary acknowledges that he and his crew did some “exploratory” paint scraping before they enclosed the scaffolding. “You’re kind of doing recon, getting information about what’s on that wall,” he says. Though he says the top layers of paint he disturbed were probably not lead-contaminated, he admits that was an error: “I’m saying we should have had [the plastic enclosure] when we started.” But, he says, nothing got away—a contention Ernish disputes.

As for permits—all are on file, Gary says. But “because it’s an entity within the entity that issues the permits,” they may not be visible to the casual internet searcher. They are in a folder at the office, though, he says.

Gary sounds irritated that Ernish did not simply ask him directly what he was doing and who he works for. “If she had been a little bit forthright, instead of trying to be a secret agent,” he says, she would have got her answers. “I feel that’s a violation of my privacy” that she took down his license plate numbers, he says.

The job is being done right, Gary says, because “I live in the city too. I don’t want lead paint all over the city.”

Norton says that the way the job was done, as described by Ernish, sounds anything but right. And, she says, city employees almost certainly know better: “I would be very, very surprised if there is an employee at HABC who hasn’t received the full training,” she says.

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