For those viewing it from miles away, the huge plume of black smoke billowing from a burning warehouse in south Baltimore yesterday was a curiosity – water cooler conversation.
But for people in the neighborhoods closer to the massive fire, it was the source of a strong, acrid, chemical odor and a reminder of their dubious distinction as the home to the city’s grittiest industries.
As the fire blazed yesterday, the stench was overwhelming in nearby Westport, about two miles from the fire at Whitehouse & Schapiro, LLC, according to Keisha Allen.
“I just got home and the air smells incredibly awful. It smells like an electrical fire,” said Allen, president of the Westport Neighborhood Association.
Allen wasn’t surprised that her 21230 zip code clocked in at “Unhealthy” on the “AirNow” website that uses real-time air quality data from the Maryland Department of the Environment.
“Unhealthy is an understatement,” she said.
Gas Leak a Week Ago
Today the fire at 1026 East Patapsco Avenue, though smouldering, was under control, the Baltimore Fire Department said.
But residents remain rattled after the second incident in a week to foul the area’s air and raise concerns about health and safety.
On the previous Monday, toxic acid being unloaded at a Curtis Bay company leaked into the air and formed a white cloud of gas, leading authorities to advise residents to remain inside with the doors closed and windows shut for hours.
No one was injured as a result of the chlorosulfonic acid leak, which occurred at about 11 a.m. September 18th at the Solvay Industries plant on Fairfield Road.
But knowing the substance can cause sore throat, shortness of breath and other respiratory problems and is potentially lethal, people in Curtis Bay were in a frightened.
“I was so upset just thinking about what could happen,” said Destiny Watford, the student activist who lead a successful effort to stop an incinerator planned less than a mile from her school.
Watford recalled the scene at Curtis Bay Elementary School where parents went to pick up their children after the alert about the gas leak.
“Everybody was anxious, it was terrible,” said Watford, who went to the school to pick up her nephew.
Watford, the winner of the prestigious Goldman Prize for her work opposing the incinerator, is teaming with others in the environmental justice group Free Your Voice to establish a Community Land Trust in the area, in hopes of promoting more sustainable development in the area in the future.
Continuing Chemical “Events”
Meanwhile, the environmental experts working in the area said there’s not enough data yet on yesterday’s warehouse fire to know how it has impacted air quality in Curtis Bay and the nearby neighborhoods.
“I would guess that fine particle levels, which are associated with combustion, may have spiked in the area,” said Leah Kelly, senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).
“Ozone levels may also be high as combustion produces nitrogen oxide and the weather was relatively warm and sunny, which is conducive to the formation of ozone,” she noted.
“We are concerned about the number of chemical events and fires that have taken place in the area, including the Solvay chemical leak last week,” she said. “We are starting to look into some of these events further.”
A 2012 study by EIP found that Curtis Bay and Brooklyn neighborhoods are among the most polluted in Maryland and even the nation.
The Curtis Bay zip code has the highest toxic air pollution from businesses and factories in the state, according to the study by the D.C.-based group.
Air pollution in the area accounted for more than a third of all such emissions in the state and nearly 90 percent of of Baltimore city’s total, the study said.