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Companies cited over 'terrible smell'

November 19, 2004|by TARA REILLY

HAGERSTOWN - Two local companies were cited by the Washington County Health Department as being the source of a "terrible smell" that hung over a part of Hagerstown's South End Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, a health official said Thursday.

Kimmy Armstrong, a registered sanitarian program supervisor at the Health Department, said the odor smelled like a combination of "cat urine, burning oil and sulfur."

The smell became apparent at about 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday and stuck around until about noon Wednesday, officials said.

Armstrong said various agencies received complaints about the smell.

"It's not toxic. It's not hazardous. It is just a terrible smell," Hagerstown Fire Chief Gary Hawbaker said.

Armstrong said the Health Department issued nuisance odor violations to Maryland Metals Inc. and Norfolk Southern Railway, both of Hagerstown, in connection with the incident. Any penalties that might result from the violations would be determined by the Maryland Department of the Environment, she said.


A man who answered the phone at Norfolk Southern Thursday afternoon told a reporter to call back at 9 p.m. At 9 p.m., a reporter was told to call at 10 p.m. Representatives of the company could not be reached for comment when called at that time.

Maryland Metals President Bob Kerstein said Thursday he couldn't comment on the citation because he was unaware that one had been issued.

Health Department spokesman Rod MacRae said the smell came from smoldering metal shavings that had been sitting in Norfolk Southern rail cars in its rail yard behind several Washington County schools.

Maryland Metals ships the metal shavings from various businesses to other companies that recycle the materials, Kerstein said. He said he didn't know where the shipments were headed.

MacRae said the shavings and the cutting oil on the shavings began smoldering as they sat in the rail cars, giving off the smell.

E. Russell Hicks Middle School, Emma K. Doub Elementary School, South Hagerstown High School, Antietam Academy and Washington County Technical High School are near the rail yard.

Hawbaker said the odor wafted through the schools, but that emergency officials found it was not hazardous after checking the air quality in the buildings.

MacRae confirmed that the fumes weren't toxic, but said some of the chemicals in the fumes are considered to be irritants.

"It can be an irritant to people, and of course, people have different sensitivities," MacRae said.

Kerstein said Tuesday's weather - warm in the afternoon and cool at night - could have triggered the smoldering.

Hawbaker said the smell began to dissipate on its own Wednesday morning.

"The sun came out on Wednesday, and the breeze started to blow, and that was the end of it," Hawbaker said.

The Health Department wanted the rail cars, which Kerstein described as gondola cars, moved sooner than that.

"We requested that they move them out of town, and they refused," Armstrong said. "They said there were no engines available."

Kerstein said odors from the shavings have probably been noticeable three times in the last 10 years.

Hawbaker said firefighters are familiar with the smell but didn't say how many times the odor has been noticeable in the area.

"We're used to it, and we know as soon as we smell it what it is," he said.

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