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Bartlett appeals to governor, House speaker to save roundhouse

January 14, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE and DAN KULINs

ANNAPOLIS - U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., made an 11th-hour appeal to Maryland's governor and House speaker Thursday to help stop demolition of the Hagerstown Roundhouse.

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Bartlett admitted, however, that a proposal to save the roundhouse has only a 50-50 chance of being approved.

To silence the bulldozers, the state would have to take over the property and exempt CSX, the owner of the roundhouse complex, from liability against future lawsuits stemming from possible underground contamination, Bartlett said.

The idea was discussed during a two-hour closed-door meeting that Bartlett mediated Thursday at the James Senate Office Building in Annapolis.

Present were Bartlett, state Dels. Robert A. McKee and Christopher B. Shank, state Sen. Donald F. Munson, Roundhouse Museum board members, and representatives of CSX, Maryland General Services Administration and Maryland Department of Environment.

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CSX would halt demolition, at least temporarily, if both Taylor and Glendening would agree to seek legislation exempting CSX from liability, Bartlett said.

Don Vandrey, a spokesman for Gov. Parris Glendening, said the state was prohibited by law from indemnifying CSX from future liability and called the condition ''a quagmire.''

''Is the site of such value to the state that you'd even put yourself in that position?'' he said.

Glendening's spokesman said such a law would have serious implications since it is something the state has never done before.

State lawmakers, who left Bartlett's private meeting early because the General Assembly was convening, also were not optimistic.

Shank said the proposal would open the state to being sued.

Liability has been the sticking point for a year, with both Washington County and the Hagerstown City Council refusing to take the risk.

In the past, state officials also have balked.

Bartlett said he couldn't fault CSX for wanting to absolve itself from liability.

Similar liability issues led to a $2.5 billion verdict by a New Orleans jury that CSX is appealing, said company spokesman Robert L. Gould.

Bartlett said he disagrees with federal laws that hold companies responsible for past problems.

As long as the company followed the rules at the time, they should not be liable, he said.

"The real culprit here is the federal government and the laws they pass," he said.

But the chances of changing the federal law are slim and it could not happen in time to save the roundhouse, he said.

Meanwhile, wrecking crews continued to tear down the rundown buildings on the roundhouse property.

The semicircular roundhouse building would be the last building touched in a demolition estimated to take three months, the contractor has said.

"We haven't quit yet," said Roundhouse Museum board member Bob Rollins.

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