Coalition Seeks To Broker Wagner Pt. Buyout

by Alice Cherbonnier
     SOME OF THE FAMILIES living in the small community of Wagner’s Point in South Baltimore have been there for generations. It’s going to be wrenching for them to leave each other, but it’s going to happen. About 370 people who live in 100 rowhouses in the shadow of chemical plants and oil storage facilities will soon be displaced.
     Though the area has always had industry, Wagner’s Point was once a more pleasant place to live. “It wasn’t until the mid-’80s that it became much more industrial,” says Terry Harris, director of the all-volunteer Cleanup Coalition. “The canneries became chemical plants, they grew, and so on. The City did rezoning to make it basically an industrial wasteland.”
     The residents, fearing health problems from their surroundings--20 people have died from cancer in the past few years, and there have been three serious chemical accidents there in the past six months--have resigned themselves that they have to leave. They’ve turned to the government to condemn their homes so they will have the means to relocate.
     The City of Baltimore and state and federal officials have been working toward an acceptable buy-out figure, but environmental activists are seeking additional financial contributions from the ten companies operating in Wagner’s Point.
     That’s because the government, by law, can only offer the residents a “fair market” buy-out. Since their properties’ value is artificially depressed due to the area’s contamination, they cannot expect to receive as much as they would if their properties were taken under ordinary circumstances.
     “Everybody’s sort of at fault down there,” Harris says of the Wagner Point industries. “If everybody kicks in, the homeowners would get a better deal.” That’s assuming that the industries’ contributions would be in addition to, and not in place of, government contributions.
     Condea Vista, one of the 10 companies, has agreed to participate in settlement talks; the other nine industries have been approached, but so far “they’ve politely declined,” says Harris. Condea Vista’s participation, he believes, will stimulate the other industries to reconsider. “Most of the people are sitting at the [bargaining] table,” he says.
     If it occurs, the combined government-industry buy-out would be unprecedented, according to a Cleanup Coalition report.
     The Coalition, a nonprofit, was organized by “neighborhood folks” concerned about toxic substances in communities. Harris, a University of Maryland School of Law student and former Hopkins physicist, works with the law school’s Environmental Law Clinic, directed by Rena Steinzor. “She’s our lawyer,” Harris says of Steinzor.
     Also active in the Cleanup Coalition is MaryPIRG--the Maryland Public Interest Research Group.
     “A lot of us have been working together on these things for a long time,” says Harris.
     The Coalition had expected the Wagner’s Point settlement to be completed by now. It has a lot of other projects and concerns to deal with. In East Baltimore, communities need help to deal with rock crushing and landfills; in West Baltimore, residents are concerned about a dump operated by a major contractor.
     In Pigtown, residents want a cleanup of brownfields near the B&O Railroad Museum; the site contains PCB-related chemicals. “Everybody wants it redeveloped, but they want it cleaned up right,” says Harris.
     Even if land can’t be lived on, it can still be useful. Once the Wagner’s Point residents have moved away, their community site will be redeveloped too--for the expansion of the City’s sewage treatment plant.

Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on Jan. 6, 1999.