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Dust Up

Morgan State University Professors Join Forces With East Baltimore Neighborhood Group to Stop Demolition of Houses in Area Slated for Biotech Development

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Dirty Work: The 800 block of Rutland Avenue is now the center of a controversy over lead-paint dust that could be released into the air by demolition for the East Baltimore biotech park.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 6/2/2004

Cranes were set up to begin demolition of rowhouses in the 800 block of Rutland Avenue in late April, to make way for Johns Hopkins Medical's long-awaited East Baltimore Biotech Park, when a letter from two Morgan State University professors arrived, demanding that work on the project cease immediately.

The letter, signed by Raymond Winbush, director of Morgan State's Institute for Urban Research, and Richard Scott, lecturer in the university's Public Health Program, noted that, according to the July 2003 Environmental Health Perspective journal, housing demolition in East Baltimore is a major source of harmful "lead in ambient dust." The professors urged "cessation of the current demolition and a meeting involving [East Baltimore Development Inc., the project's developer], the residents, members of the Johns Hopkins University, the demolition workers, and scientists from Morgan State University." If demolition continued as planned, the letter warned, Winbush and Scott would sue for a court injunction against the project.

Project organizers have promised to use water hoses to keep lead dust down during demolition of buildings for the project, but Winbush and Scott insist that there is no scientific evidence showing that this will effectively mitigate the risks.

The biotech park, formally known as the Johns Hopkins Life Science and Technology Park, is a 2 million-square-foot, $800 million project billed by its boosters as the economic engine that will revitalize the city's wilting east side. Those boosters say the biotech park will be a national model for urban renewal, a mixture of research companies, 1,200 residences, shops, and other businesses encompassing 90 city blocks. In order to put the project's construction in motion, however, residents of the area--many of whom have lived in Middle East and surrounding neighborhoods for decades--had to be displaced. Organizers of the project promised to buy up residences that needed to be demolished and relocate homeowners. Now those homes, which lie in a 90-acre area bounded by Broadway, Patterson Park, Madison Avenue, and Chase Street, are scheduled to be taken down.

Winbush and Scott intervened in the demolition on behalf of the Save Middle East Action Committee, a neighborhood organization formed to negotiate with East Baltimore Development on behalf of residents threatened by the biotech development. They note that the 2003 report on lead dust, put together by researchers at the Hopkins-affiliated Kennedy Krieger Institute, shows that the lead-dust levels hovering in the air when buildings are demolished in East Baltimore violate federal guidelines.

"Daily lead dust fall during demolition exceeded the U.S. [Environmental Protection Agency] floor standard by six fold and as much as 81-fold on an individual sample basis," according to the report. (The floor standard is a measurement of the amount of lead dust that settles on an interior floor.)

Winbush says that East Baltimore Development's demolition practices are akin to performing an experiment with a gun pointed to the heads of the residents. Those practices, according to the development company, include regular air sampling as demolition takes place, water hoses to suppress airborne dust, resident health notifications, rat abatement, and interagency coordination. "We don't know the effect of pulling the trigger," Winbush says. "Let's see what happens when we pull the trigger. Take my head away and then pull the trigger. Why risk people's lives like this?"

Winbush, Scott, and the Save Middle East Action Committee are asking that residents be moved out of the area before demolition of the rowhouses begins.

East Baltimore Development chief executive officer John "Jack" Shannon says that removing residents from the area is not necessary because of his company's "community-powered model" of demolition and construction. He says the development company has taken steps that reduce risks of harmful exposure and keep residents informed about what is going on around them.

"It is clear that if you soak a building as you begin demolition, and continue to soak as you do demolition in a very strategic and deliberate manner . . . you will dramatically reduce dust levels to below acceptable levels," Shannon says, though he could not produce any hard data to back up this assertion.

Eric Booker, an East Baltimore Development project manager who was present at the interview, offers some anecdotal evidence from a demolition he witnessed in early April. "I saw very little dust just because of the method we were employing," he says. "The building was literally picked apart brick by brick. Everywhere the crane was going the hose was right there."

But for opponents of the project, anecdotal evidence is not enough. They want proof that the project will not harm their health, or the project put on hold until people can be relocated. Some skeptical residents of the area say it's particularly disturbing that Hopkins was aware of the Kennedy Krieger study but neighbors were not.

Save Middle East President Lisa Williams says the study's results were not well-known or distributed to the community before Winbush and her organization brought them up. Though developers had access to the information on the levels of lead dust in the air as the project has progressed, she says, no one warned residents of the risk. Now, Williams says, it seems as if Hopkins and the project's other developers are using residents to study its new lead-dust mitigation procedures--in essence, using residents as guinea pigs.

"We need scientific facts, but we don't want to be used to get the facts," Williams says.

The Morgan State instructors and Save Middle East's perspective on the biotech park project and its possible health impact on residents is not shared by everyone in the community, however. Some groups, including the Baltimore Community for Environmental Justice and the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, worked with East Baltimore Development on developing the project, and some active community members have helped develop the more cautious demolition practices. Supporters of the biotech park say that Save Middle East is an obstructionist organization that is only interested in shutting the project down, and they criticize the Morgan State professors for suddenly becoming involved. They say the planning process for the biotech park has been open to the public, and they resent the fact that Save Middle East and the professors are speaking as if they represent the community's best interests.

"Morgan has been missing in action in East Baltimore for God knows how long," comments Glenn Ross, a longtime east-side activist and Green Party candidate for City Council. Ross, who lives just outside the targeted biotech park area, has been active in keeping tabs on the project since its inception. "Our feeling is, who is Morgan State coming down here demanding anything?"

Underscoring the conflict between the two factions is a long-harbored distrust of Hopkins and its intentions among many in the community. Some who live in East Baltimore have long felt that the powerful institution has always hoped to buy up big chunks of land for expansion, despite the impact it would have on neighborhoods. And they say that there have been times when Hopkins has used residents of communities adjacent to its projects as subjects in experiments or studies, such as the lead-dust study, but failed to address the problems uncovered by its research.

The author of the 2003 lead-dust study, the Hopkins Department of Health Policy and Management's Mark Farfel, was involved in an earlier lead study on low-cost ways to reduce lead-paint contamination in homes. The study ended up being the basis of a 2000 lawsuit, Grimes v. Kennedy Krieger, insisted that the researchers were obligated to inform participating families about potentially harmful exposure to lead during the study. Kennedy Krieger defended its work at the time by stating that it was researching lead found in buildings and not families.

Farfel declined comment and deferred all questions to East Baltimore Development.

Patricia Tracey, a co-founder and former president of Save Middle East until she was forced to resign because she once worked for Farfel, defended the 2003 lead-dust study despite the fact that many residents feel the researchers did not offer them enough information on their findings when the study was being conducted. In the long run, Tracey says, that study helped make the community more aware of the dangers of lead exposure and problems associated with demolition.

"Nobody was looking at demolition [before]," she says. "As long as nobody didn't make a big stink about it, nobody was addressing it."

She says Save Middle East's combative attitude is turning off residents and making people less inclined to seek information or get involved in the project.

Save Middle East's Williams acknowledges that the organization is taking a risk in adopting its aggressive stance against the biotech park. But she says that many in the community have a vested interest in the biotech project and can't look at it objectively. For instance, she notes that Tracey runs a nonprofit organization called Prohealthsol that is working on the biotech project, and that the local Environmental Justice Community Partnership has received a $100,000 grant from the EPA to educate the community about the demolition.

Williams says Save Middle East needs to take a tough stance on the project as it proceeds--especially now, as negotiations are underway between the biotech park's developers and residents to put together relocation packages for those who had to give up homes that stood in the way of the park's construction.

"Every time we speak out, we put our funding at risk," Williams says. (The organization receives funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which has played a role in working with residents who are being dislocated by the biotech park.) "But we can't do anything but tell the truth."

Tracey disputes Williams' assertion that her nonprofit organization's business ties to the biotech park are a negative thing for the community. She says her influence should be viewed as a boon for the neighborhoods.

"I'm a way in for them to get resources," says Tracey, who is also a community relations coordinator with the Johns Hopkins Center in Urban Environmental Health.

The environment and air quality around Johns Hopkins Medical have long been an issue for those who have lived around the ever-expanding campus. Even Hopkins employees acknowledge that they often have to dodge plumes of dust rising from the numerous construction and demolition sites.

East Baltimore Development CEO Jack Shannon says that informing residents about construction and demolition activity in the area has become standard procedure.

Advocates for the biotech park say that block organizers will be going door-to-door to tell neighbors about pending demolition, and residents will receive handouts warning them to take certain precautions, like closing windows and bringing pets and children indoors, to avoid dust and other hazards.

That these precautions need to be in place underscores the biotech park's development's potential threat to human health, Winbush says. Pointing out that information pamphlets tell residents to wash floors, windows, and carpets every day, Winbush says, "If someone is telling you to do these things, you know there has got to be some harm being done."

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