SOME OF THE FAMILIES living in the small community of Wagners Point in South Baltimore have been there for generations. Its going to be wrenching for them to leave each other, but its 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, Wagners Point was once a more pleasant place to live. It wasnt 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. Theyve 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 Wagners Point.
Thats 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 areas contamination, they cannot expect to receive as much as they would if their properties were taken under ordinary circumstances.
Everybodys sort of at fault down there, Harris says of the Wagner Point industries. If everybody kicks in, the homeowners would get a better deal. Thats 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 theyve politely declined, says Harris. Condea Vistas 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 schools Environmental Law Clinic, directed by Rena Steinzor. Shes 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 Wagners 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 cant be lived on, it can still be useful. Once the Wagners Point residents have moved away, their community site will be redeveloped too--for the expansion of the Citys sewage treatment plant.
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This story was published on Jan. 6, 1999.