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Going Batty

August 27, 2005|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

erinc@herald-mail.com

WILLIAMSPORT

Large piles of bat droppings scattered throughout the Springfield Farm Barn caused foul-ups for Williamsport officials and the cancellation of the annual C&O Canal Days barn dance Friday.

In years past, town employees have been sent to clean out the barn, on Springfield Lane adjacent to Byron Memorial Park, whenever an event was scheduled there, but Mayor James G. McCleaf II said employees no longer were going to be asked to take on that task.

"Evidently, there is a lot of toxic stuff in bat droppings," McCleaf said. "It is very dangerous for humans to go in there and clean it."

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This year, Councilman Jeff Cline told other officials how dangerous the task is.

Bats have lived in the barn for hundreds of years, McCleaf said. The floor is covered with plastic sheets to protect it and make cleanup easier.

Jeff Long, Williamsport supervisor, said he has cleaned the barn before events for nearly seven years. He and four employees typically worked for six hours to clean up the droppings.

"Most of the mess was on the plastic," Long said. "The rest we would just sweep up and get rid of."

Many picnic tables inside the barn also are coated with pellets.

"It's a mess," Long said.

Cline said bat droppings only are harmful during the cleaning process. When they are airborne or stick to clothes and shoes, people who come in contact with the droppings can become ill and suffer flu-like symptoms, he said.

Cline said he also contacted a real "bat expert" with the Department of Natural Resources, who told him bat droppings can cause an infection called "histoplasmosis" - a fungal disease.

Attempts to reach a spokesman with the Department of Natural Resources were unsuccessful.

Long said he and his employees never got sick from the droppings.

Cline said he learned about the dangers of bat droppings through his real estate practice. He was handling a property with bats in the attic and said he called pest control offices for help. Representatives told him the droppings were toxic.

"You can't just send employees in with a plastic mask on," Cline said. "There is a risk and cost involved to clean it without endangering anybody."

In the case of the barn, Cline received two cleaning estimates. One from Valley Pest & Termite Control in Hagerstown was for $750, according to documents provided by Cline. The other estimate from Ehrlich was $1,800.

Elissa Slayman, C&O Canal Days chairwoman, said about three weeks ago officials told her the event committee would have to pay for the cleanup.

"And I told them we couldn't have a barn dance," Slayman said. "We couldn't afford it."

McCleaf said it was unfortunate the town did not have the funds to clean the barn in time for the dance.

"You clean it up today, and you have more bat droppings tomorrow," McCleaf said. "You need to seal the barn completely. There are more holes and crevices in there than you could ever imagine. You need to seal all of those."

McCleaf said the bats will migrate in September, when their food supply - bugs - no longer is available. The town then can work on bat-proofing the barn.

"I've become a bat expert," McCleaf said.

Slayman said she contacted an environmentalist, who said bat droppings are not harmful.

The barn dance might have been canceled anyway because of safety issues, McCleaf said. The barn never has been inspected by a fire marshal and there is no guideline for how many people can fit safely inside, he said.

"There was never a structural survey of the barn," McCleaf said.

Other C&O Canal Days events will continue as scheduled this weekend.

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