A Pennsylvania town is grappling with potentially serious contamination of its air, water and residents after a contractor unleashed “clouds” of uncontained lead-based paint dust while blast-cleaning a building in the center of town.
The paint dust was so thick at one point that a witness who saw it from two or three blocks away thought the building was on fire and rushed to help, said Dave Meister, code and zoning officer for Danville, a community of about 5,000 in central Pennsylvania.
The incident occurred Oct. 17 as Mark Ferrar, owner of Hawk Mountain Soda Blasting Co., of Orwigsburg, PA, blast-cleaned paint—apparently without any containment measures—from the front exterior of a brick, 19th-century three-story building on Mill Street, which is Danville’s main street.
The row building has a photography studio on the street level and apartments on the second and third floors. The cleaning, done on a breezy Sunday, generated clouds of dust that “carried quite a ways,” said Meister.
Meister was out of town at the time but returned the next morning to find dust and debris all over the ground. “I could find a pile of this stuff,” he said.
Ferrar told a local reporter that he had not used a tarp during the job and had not covered anything before his crew started blasting.
"We didn't use one, because we were unaware of the ordinance in the city," Ferrar told The (Danville) Daily Item, referring to Danville’s nuisance ordinance, which prohibits smoke, water and other contamination. "Any debris that fell was swept up and power-washed down."
Ferrar did not respond Friday (Oct. 29) to a request for comment.
‘It Just Blows Away’
Meister says that when he called Ferrar the day after the job, “I asked him, ‘What did you do for containment?’ The guy almost chuckled and said, ‘You can’t contain this stuff. It just blows away.’”
Asked if he had tested for lead in the paint before beginning work, Ferrar said that both he and building owner Mike Kuziak, of Danville, had thought the building was last painted in the 1980s, after lead-based paint was banned, and so both assumed it had no lead.
Kuziak declined comment on Friday and said he had hired an attorney.
Town officials then sent out paint samples to EMSL Analytic Inc., in New Jersey, to be tested for lead.
Meanwhile, Meister said, rain washed much of the dust into the city storm sewers, and the air cleared, although some paint chips remain.
The testing results came back Wednesday night (Oct. 27) and showed that the paint had a lead content of 11%—22 times the legal limit, Meister said.
Meister said he contacted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 3 Office both Wednesday night and Thursday morning, but received no response. An EPA spokesman said Friday that the agency’s Emergency Response office had no record of the calls.
Meister also said he contacted the Air Quality division of the state Department of Environmental Protection, which is now involved. This week, he also contacted the DEP’s Water Quality division, which is expected to be involved soon. DEP did not return a phone call Friday.
Once the lead was confirmed, the attention turned to Danville’s Halloween Parade, which was scheduled for Thursday morning. The parade is a 50-year-old tradition that lasts for hours and draws many spectators from other communities, Meister said.
Officials did not want children playing on the street—-or, worse, picking up candy tossed to them—so the parade was rerouted for the first time.
Residents of the building, as well as those in adjoining buildings, were informed of the problem, and community residents are being told to see their doctors if they are concerned or show flu-like symptoms that could indicate a high lead level.
Possibly most concerned is the owner of the photography studio, who works with children and was open that day. She “had clients coming in and out of her storefront in what was essentially a cloud,” Meister said. The photographer did not return a call Friday.
Approvals and Assurances
Meister said that Kuziak had appeared before the town’s Historical Review Board as required to get prior approval for the project. The board, which includes Meister, questioned Kuziak about lead safety, containment and clean-up plans. Kuziak seemed to understand the project’s risks, Meister said, and assured the board that his contractor would take care of everything.
The town has since learned that Ferrar is unlicensed, not certified in lead-safe practices, and has no knowledge of state and federal lead-safety laws (although “common sense says he should have been doing better practices,” Meister said).
Ferrar was cited under the town ordinance and banned from doing another job on a larger building across the street.
Meanwhile, efforts continue on many fronts—¬local, state and federal—to investigate the issue and plan the next steps. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration will likely be involved soon as well, because Ferrar had someone working with him—possibly his son, Meister said.
Ferrar will also be facing the full brunt of EPA’s new Renovation, Repair and Painting rule. Enforcement of the rule began Oct. 1, and fines range up to $35,000 a day.
For now, consultants and local officials believe that the immediate public health threat has passed.
“What happened initially was really bad,” Meister said. “Anyone who was in that area breathing that— it’s probably really bad.
“Now, it’s probably not so bad.”