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Showers of Plastic Foam Particles in Bethesda, Maryland

A coating of plastic foam particles and dust has appeared on the ground repeatedly around a hotel construction site in downtown Bethesda. Montgomery County officials say the combination is not hazardous, but they have cited the construction firm and threatened to withdraw the building permit.
A coating of plastic foam particles and dust has appeared on the ground repeatedly around a hotel construction site in downtown Bethesda. Montgomery County officials say the combination is not hazardous, but they have cited the construction firm and threatened to withdraw the building permit. (By Chuck Husak)
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By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mike August, a partner in a Bethesda ad agency, arrived at work one recent day to find the parking lot covered in a mysterious white substance.

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"It looked like snow," August said. Never mind that the temperature was in the 50s.

He traced the substance, a combination of plastic foam bits and fine dust, to a Hilton Garden Inn under construction across the street. A county inspector soon issued a violation notice to Donohoe Construction, ordering the company to clean up the site and change its construction practices. A company official agreed to do so, according to Montgomery County records.

But the problem, which began in late March, continued as recently as yesterday, despite eight more visits from county environment officials, three citations totaling $1,500 in fines and a threat by the county to withdraw the building permit.

County officials said the mix of dust and plastic foam -- caused by sanding on the side of the hotel -- is not a health hazard.

Even so, residents and occupants of nearby office buildings said they are worried. Yesterday, Carole Brand, a former Parent Teacher Student Association president at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, was proctoring an exam for students in a nearby office building when she noticed particles floating in the air.

"So you are breathing this stuff in downtown Bethesda," she said. "You are not supposed to be breathing fine particles. I covered my mouth when I left the building. It is not solved."

Officials from Donohoe, a major construction firm in the Washington area, did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment. Donohoe has not been cited for any other environmental violations in Montgomery in the past six years.

County law requires builders to take "reasonable precautions" to minimize airborne pollution, county spokeswoman Esther Bowring said.

County records and interviews with occupants of nearby offices show that throughout April and early this month, fine dust and bits of plastic foam were often seen in the air near the construction site, on Waverly Street in downtown Bethesda. The particles covered streets, cars and grassy areas, and they blew into a stream in the nearby Georgetown Branch walker-biker trail.

Officials grew increasingly concerned after receiving repeated calls from nearby office buildings that the construction site was creating "a pollutant, litter and a nuisance," Bowring said.

A county inspector, Susan Allen, visited the site several times, documenting the company's failure to comply with requests to clean up the area and minimize particles and dust.


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