“For over 20 years, my lips and eyes have been burning,” said Frieda ‘Miss Penny’ Morton. She tilted her glasses down to her nose and pointed to her eyes. “And my eyes are always red.”
Morton contends that she doesn’t drink or smoke, it’s an MTA bus yard facility with almost 200 diesel-fueled buses in her backyard that’s causing the irritating symptoms. According to the 69-year-old, many of her neighbors have faired far worst – at least 25 have died from cancer or respiratory problems over the last 20 years. It’s no coincidence they all lived within several feet of the East Baltimore Kirk Avenue Bus Division, she said.
Morton and a group of neighbors and community organizers staged a demonstration amid the boiling heat June 11 to protest the 6.7 acre facility which houses approximately 175 buses seven days a week. Beating drums and waving silver pompoms, about 30 young dancers from a community marching band circled the bus yard. Several wore paper signs on their backs that read “MTA Go Away.”
A bus driver glanced briefly at the marchers before shuffling off into the yard to begin his shift. He wouldn’t give his name, but admitted feeling “bad” for the facility’s distressed neighbors. “I know this has been going on for at least 10 years,” he said.
Mrs. Morton says it’s been over 30.
According to the MTA website, the bus depot was built in 1947. Morton, who has lived on Bartlett Avenue for 47 years, says the agency cleared a grassy playground to construct the facility after residents in the then-predominately White Hamilton neighborhood protested its construction there.
The facility has produced decades of discomfort, she recollects, from fumes to excessive noise to traffic jams. When Morton complains to the MTA, she contends, she is insulted, ridiculed and even told she “should be used to the yard by now.”
She and a couple, the Harrisons, who lived a few doors down, teamed up to aggressively contest the facility until a few years ago, when Ralph Harrison died of cancer and soon after, Mary Agnes Harrison died of respiratory problems. Countless other neighbors battle asthma.
“This is all painful to talk about,” Morton said solemnly, holding back tears.
Health experts say it’s difficult to definitively tie the high death and disease rate in the neighborhood to the bus yard’s emissions. But a 2004 study conducted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Urban Environmental Health found that the area’s pollution levels were above safety limits for exposure. Excessive contact with fine-particle pollution has been linked to heart attacks, aggravated asthma and premature deaths, especially among people with lung or heart conditions.
“We’ve really worked with the community to address these concerns and have taken a number of proactive measures,” said MTA spokesman Terry Owens. In recent years, he said the agency has started parking buses away from residences to reduce noise and emissions, relocated 40 percent of the bus fleet and utilized 37 hybrid vehicles. The MTA says a multi-million dollar reconstruction and expansion plan that would enclose the bus yard entirely will move forward when funds become available.
The agency avoided a noise violation fine from the Baltimore City Health Department after vowing to reduce the amount of time buses idle in the yard to 20 minutes and discontinue a loud speaker that blared communications between drivers well into the night. Several community members insist the MTA has made empty promises, including the reduced idle times for buses.
When asked why she doesn’t move, Morton says, ” would be cruel to send someone else to live there. That’s like murder. And why should we move? I haven’t done anything to the MTA.”
Customers and employees at a towing shop across the street from the Kirk facility say the “fumes aren’t as toxic as they used to be,” but traffic congestion still poses an issue. “They are going to have a tough time because they have so many vacant houses,” said Ron Smith, who was waiting to pick up his vehicle from the R&R Towing Service. “We are renters. They don’t share the same equity as homeowners.”
“They are wasting their time,” said Mr. Winfield, another customer.
Smith countered, “I don’t know if it’s a waste of time, but it’s going to be a tough call.”
Leon Purnell, director of the local health clinic Men and Family Center, urges the community to file a civil suit. “One of the problems is, I don’t think is taking the community seriously,” he said. “Local politicians haven’t been involved because they want to have power. But now you might start seeing them because it’s election time.”
Likely mayoral candidate Councilman Carl Stokes, who represents the neighborhood, made an appearance after the protest. Despite the agency’s apparent budget crunch, Stokes says the MTA “should move quickly to build a border with an overhang that would block fumes from traveling.”
He meets with the MTA director in July, he said, to suggest the idea and involve state delegates.
“It’s going to take something more drastic than marching around the block a few times to change things,” according to Purnell.
Morton concurs. “We have to continue to make a difference. I’m tired of burying my friends.”