Program charts dangerous materials in vacant Camden buildings

Posted: August 30, 2012

Nearly a decade after a Camden medical-transportation service closed for good, the shelves of its Haddon Avenue headquarters remain lined with tools, and documents spill from boxes onto the first floor.

"It's like they got up from work at 5 and went home and just never came back," Robert Van Fossen, the state Department of Environmental Protection's director of emergency management, said Wednesday as he walked through the abandoned two-story Ambivan Medical Transport building.

Vandals have stripped the building of copper and other metals and probably have taken other valuables, city officials said Wednesday. But no one, including anyone associated with the business, has moved the oil drums and oxygen tanks left behind.

If a structure in its condition were to catch fire, first responders typically would have no warning of the hazards inside, making a dangerous situation more so, said Fire Chief Michael Harper, who accompanied Van Fossen. In addition to potentially causing the blaze to spread more quickly, the combustible materials could obstruct the path of firefighters.

"No one hands them a floor plan," Harper said.

The DEP, prompted by three massive warehouse fires in Camden last summer, has created a pilot program to identify hazardous materials left behind or discarded in abandoned urban buildings, authorities said Wednesday.

In Camden, the first site in the "Boots on the Ground" program, a team of state and city officials inspected 31 abandoned warehouses and industrial and commercial buildings this summer. The structures were identified by the city as having the highest potential for containing dangerous materials.

An analysis of what they found was entered into a Geographic Information System (GIS) software program to aid police and other emergency personnel. Dispatchers will warn them of the hazardous materials in a building and of structural issues, such as cracked ceilings or hanging wires, they may encounter, Harper said.

"The more information you have, it allows you to operate in a safer manner," he said.

Fire companies have tried to be familiar with vacant buildings in their areas, Harper said. But when other engine companies were called in, "they wouldn't know," said Harper, who praised the more organized approach.

The New Jersey Sierra Club criticized the DEP on Wednesday for not going after those who leave dangerous chemicals behind and holding them accountable for remediation.

"The Spill Act gives the DEP the ability to go in and clean up the sites and bill the polluters," Jeff Tittel, director of the nonprofit group, said in a statement. "They are cutting back on enforcement, allowing sites to sit there dirty for years."

But the state said that the buildings on which the pilot program focuses are not designated toxic sites.

Though oil drums and oxygen tanks are potential hazards, "their presence doesn't make it a contaminated site," said agency spokesman Larry Hajna.

Officials made attempts to reach owners of the 31 Camden properties but were able to get cooperation only from a handful. The owners of some buildings, such as Ambivan's, are unknown.

After being trained on the software, city officials will take over the program and add or subtract buildings. Inspections would be done by city staff, officials said.

The state will spend about $10,000 to remove oil drums from the designated Camden sites, officials said. If the Boots on the Ground pilot proves worthwhile, it is likely to be expanded to another city next year, they said.


Contact Claudia Vargas at 267-815-1953, cvargas@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," on philly.com.

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