Maryland has filed suit against the owners of the landmark television tower on TV Hill, saying the repainting that sent lead paint chips raining down on nearby North Baltimore communities violated state law.
Work undertaken last summer by Television Tower Inc. (TTI) was carried out “with little-to-no containment methods by an unaccredited contractor,” according to the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Maryland Attorney General’s office.
“This enforcement action assigns accountability for the health hazards that were literally cast upon a community and its children,” said MDE Secretary Serena McIlwain.
Toxic flakes were found in areas “that include a child daycare center, a local playground and park, a college athletic field and various residences as far as one-half mile away.”
The complaint, filed today in Baltimore Circuit Court, names Nebraska-based contractor Skyline Tower Painting and TTI, an entity formed by three local broadcasting companies: WJZ-TV, WBAL-TV and WMAR-TV.
Noting that paint chips are still falling, the suit asks the court to enter injunctions directing TTI to:
• Stabilize and contain the tower to prevent additional paint chips from being released.
• Continue to recover visible lead paint chips in at least a half-mile radius.
• Use properly accredited workers employing proper work practices to complete work on the tower.
• Continue with outreach and notifications to affected communities.
The complaint also seeks financial penalties of up to $25,000 per day for lead accreditation, lead abatement performance and hazardous waste violations, and up to $10,000 per day for solid waste, open dumping and nuisance creation violations.
MDE is also seeking reimbursement for costs incurred in response to the release of the hazardous substance, including soil sampling of the tower grounds and surrounding communities.
Representative of TTI and Skyline have not yet responded to requests seeking comment.
Scraping and Hydroblasting
As The Brew first reported, soon after workers began scraping and blasting water at the 1,000-foot-high “candelabra tower” last May, residents began to see reddish-orange paint chips turning up on lawns, roofs and streets.
The city health department issued a stop work order in June, and MDE sent representatives from its lead poisoning prevention team and hazardous waste program to investigate.
Today’s announcement by MDE said that Skyline removed the lead paint with “minimal controls.”
“The force of the hydroblasting and high winds at the height of the tower caused the spread of lead paint dust and chips to spread as far as half a mile, an area that includes four census tracts defined under state law as underserved communities.”
MDE said it began soil sampling “earlier this year” in order to assess contamination due to the spread of lead paint into the community, noting”the complete report of the sampling results is pending.”
“We said, ‘Hell, no!’”
Many residents were critical of MDE’s response to the falling chips, questioning the pace of the cleanup as well as the agency’s failure to impose fines or take other enforcement action.
With officials doing a poor job of community outreach, residents posted handmade signs at playgrounds and other community gathering spots to warn people about the danger of the toxic chips.
Meanwhile, the three owners of the tower made almost no mention of the incident on news broadcasts and never issued public service warnings about the paint flakes.
Public anger boiled over at a meeting in August when MDE disclosed that Skyline Tower Painting, having belatedly obtained the proper permits, was being invited back to finish the job.
“We said, ‘Hell no!’” recalled resident Christine Sajecki at the idea of having the same company that had performed the work improperly return to do it again.
MDE backed off the plan, and no work was resumed over the winter.
Recently, residents received a “painting project update” from TTI informing them that another company, Vertical Technology Services, will soon be onsite to prepare and paint the tower.
The notice says the work “will proceed seven days a week and continue through completion, which is anticipated to be late summer or in the fall.”
Sajecki said that, as she understands it, the contractor will use a sleeve to capture the paint flakes before they contaminate the neighborhood.
“So they’re already doing what MDE says it’s going to make them do,” she said, adding that she’s glad the state is finally imposing fines. “That’s something I guess.”
One of several local residents who have hired a lawyer and plan to file a lawsuit against TTI, Sajecki said she worries about continuing harm from the paint flakes.
A website TTI has created to inform residents about the tower painting spells out the procedure intended to contain falling paint as the project resumes – but it notes that “due to the altitude and complexity of the structure, 100% containment is not possible.”
Over the winter, she said she contacted her city councilman and other officials, concerned that dead leaves in playgrounds and other areas could contain paint particles and should be removed carefully.
But instead “DPW came with leaf blowers and mulching machines and blasted it all over instead of removing it carefully, the workers not aware of the lead issue and not protected themselves,” Sajecki told The Brew.
Meanwhile paint flakes are still turning up in Woodberry, nearly a year after they first came wafting down from the tower.
“Just today, one fell in a potted plant, and I found another one in the back yard.”