Hot Line: The Feds Are Considering Shipping Spent Nuclear Fuel Through the Howard Street Tunnel. Are They Playing With Fire?

TEST_RAIL_CAR_CARRYING_SPENT_NUCLEAR_FUEL_SHIPPING_CASK

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Sept. 12, 2001

(Photo: commons.wikimedia.org, image of a test rail car carrying a spent nuclear fuel shipping cask.)

For a few days in mid-July, a few dozen train cars carrying hazardous chemicals and other materials burned out of control beneath the city. After a century of barely being known even to Baltimoreans, the Howard Street tunnel was suddenly in the national spotlight.

As an event, the tunnel fire was both scary and enthralling. Local residents and commuters were inundated with news of gridlock, a water-main break, and possibly toxic smoke. TV sets all over the country glimmered with images of menacing plumes and flooded streets, coupled with reports that the too-hot-to-fight inferno was disrupting not only rail traffic, but Internet services via cables that also run through the tunnel. But as normalcy was restored in the ensuing days and weeks, coverage tailed off. Today, for most folks, the fire is just a memory.

Lost in the immediacy of the moment and the disinterest of its aftermath are two questions that may ensure the Howard Street tunnel fire’s lasting legacy: What if nuclear waste had been among the freight in the hottest part of the fire? Could radioactivity have been released, contaminating people and property in the heart of a major East Coast city?

The question isn’t merely theoretical. A long-studied proposal for handling the nation’s growing inventory of nuclear waste by carting it from points around the country to a permanent repository in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain is expected to reach President Bush’s desk later this year. If the project gets a presidential thumbs-up and survives the resulting legal challenges, spent nuclear fuel will be a frequent passenger on the nation’s highways and railroads for the next three or four decades, en route to the Nevada desert. Plans drawn up by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) call for carrying used-up fuel assemblies from Constellation Energy’s Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Southern Maryland by train through the Howard Street tunnel.

When it comes to managing the potential of large-scale risks such as nuclear accidents, examining extreme hypothetical situations–the possibility, for instance, of nuclear waste in the Howard Street tunnel fire–is crucial to finding ways to avoid disasters. Thus, nuclear-transportation experts have started to examine and debate what they have dubbed “the Baltimore fire.” Until the actual conditions of the fire–the top temperature reached, how long it stayed that hot–are established, much of the talk is necessarily speculative. But the central questions posed by the fire are already known: How sturdy are the containers used to transport nuclear waste? How foolproof are the methods of moving them safely by train?

Critics contend that the containers, called “transportation casks,” haven’t been tested enough to know their true strength; cost, rather than safety, is the chief priority in designing nuclear-transportation plans, they say. The nuclear-energy industry points out the exemplary safety record of waste shipments and outlines the stringent measures taken to guard against reasonably foreseeable dangers. However the argument turns out, it’s a good bet that as the Yucca Mountain Project heats up, the Howard Street tunnel fire will be national news once again.

Sitting in her Mount Washington home July 18, Gwen Dubois listened anxiously to reports of a tunnel fire downtown. Her teenage son had already left on the light rail for a double-header at Oriole Park. “On any given day, he’s as likely to be at Camden Yards as he is to be home, despite what’s happened to the Orioles this season,” she says, recalling her worries in an interview later that month. Knowing that freight trains often carry chemicals that can produce toxic smoke when burned, Dubois was “concerned about whether his health was at risk.” When “later on I found out that he was stopped on North Avenue and came home, I was greatly relieved,” she says.

Dubois’ relief about the fire was short-lived. An internist, she sits on the board of directors of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit group based in Washington that works to raise public awareness of nuclear issues. On her house hangs a large banner reading nuclear-free zone. Attuned as she is to nuclear risks, her thoughts quickly broadened from the chemical fire to larger issues.

“Within hours,” she says, “I was thinking, If this were a train carrying radioactive waste, what kind of exposures would there be? Who would be monitoring? Would we even know? What about the psychological impact on people who are afraid that they’ve been exposed? So, as bad as this fire was, I thought it would have been just truly a catastrophe if the train had carried nuclear waste. . . .

“As time goes by, the other issue is, it’s going to become more and more likely that trains will contain nuclear waste, and nuclear waste carried in containers that haven’t been adequately tested. And also, this train wreck–the temperatures were extremely high, high enough to cause burning of nuclear waste and make some of the radioactivity airborne and carried over a wider area,” she continues. “So all of the specifics about this train fire–the temperature, the difficulty getting to it, the fact that it was in an urban area where a lot of people were potentially exposed–all of these factors are so relevant. If the cargo was radioactive, the implications would have really been just mammoth.”

Dubois’ mind was not the only one turning to the potential nuclear risks posed by the Howard Street tunnel fire. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)–the Senate majority whip and, like every other elected official in Nevada, a strident opponent of the Yucca Mountain plan–took to the Senate floor the day after the fire began to offer his take on the dangers.

“People think hydrochloric acid is bad, which it is,” Reid said, referring to one of the hazardous materials carried by the burning train in Baltimore, “but not as bad as nuclear waste. A speck the size of a pinpoint would kill a person. And we’re talking about transporting some 70,000 tons of it all across America.”

Reid enlisted the aid of Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes in promptly convincing his colleagues to do what politicians often do when drastic accidents occur: order a study. On July 23, as charred rail cars were being removed from the Howard Street tunnel, the Senate voted 96-0 to attach an amendment to the U.S. Department of Transportation appropriations bill requiring DOT to conduct a top-down assessment of the nation’s system for transporting hazardous and radioactive waste.

Reid’s actions in the wake of the Baltimore fire caused a flurry of interest–back in Nevada. “Baltimore’s experience should be reason enough to comprehend that Yucca Mountain isn’t just Nevada’s problem, it would be a land mine for any city or town that had the misfortune of being located near the path that would take nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain,” the daily Las Vegas Sun editorialized on July 25 under the headline “Baltimore derailment a bad omen.”

Also quick to pick up on the nuke-train angle was the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Washington-based activist group. The organization’s nuclear-waste specialist, Kevin Kamps, shot off a press release on July 21, revealing that a U.S. Department of Energy assessment of the Yucca Mountain Project included route maps that showed nuclear-waste shipments going by rail from Calvert Cliffs through the Howard Street tunnel. Kamps spent the next two weeks touring the country, garnering news coverage of this new twist to the Yucca Mountain debate.

Pro-Yucca forces dismiss attempts to play up the Baltimore fire as a nuclear-waste-transportation issue. The day after Reid made his speech on the Senate floor, the industry issued its response. “It is really unfair for Sen. Reid to use this as an opportunity to make a case against Yucca Mountain by scaring the public,” said Mitch Singer, a spokesperson for the D.C.-based Nuclear Industry Institute (NEI). Sarah Berk, spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), told reporters that Reid’s response to the tunnel fire is “a misguided and misinformed effort to connect something that should not be connected. The fact of the matter is, if that train had been carrying nuclear components, it would have been protected in containers that would have prevented this sort of a spill.” Berk stressed the nuclear-power industry’s “phenomenal safety record” and its ongoing efforts “to develop safe and responsible methods to handle nuclear waste.”

The NEI’s Web site (www.nei.org) points out that nuclear-waste shipments are small, carefully managed, and do have a remarkable safety record: In nearly 40 years of transporting spent nuclear fuel, there have been 2,900 shipments and only eight accidents. Only one was serious, and none resulted in a radioactive release.

In Maryland, shipments of high-level radioactive materials have occurred without incident. Twenty-eight thousand pounds of radioactive material passed through Maryland in four shipments during July and August 2000, according to the Maryland State Police, which is notified of such hauls, and since 1996 approximately 15 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel were trucked through the state in five separate shipments.

In addition, an NRC report shows that between 1993 and 1997 154.8 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel were shipped out of state from the Dundalk Marine Terminal, Calvert Cliffs, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg. Another 17.1 kilograms were sent to Dundalk for export.

The key to safely transporting spent nuclear rods is the survivability of the casks. The NRC, according to NEI’s Web site, requires that transportation casks “pass a series of hypothetical accident conditions that create forces greater than the containers would experience in actual accidents. The same container must, in sequence, undergo 1) a 30-foot free fall onto an unyielding surface, 2) a 40-inch fall onto a steel rod six inches in diameter, 3) a 30-minute exposure to fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit that engulfs the entire container, and 4) submergence under three feet of water for eight hours.”

What the NEI site doesn’t point out is that never has an actual, full-size cask been subjected to this battery of assaults. Quarter-scale models have been used as the basis for computer models that predict how an actual cask would perform in extreme circumstances. But no actual full-scale testing has been conducted, because subjecting a 130-ton cask to those conditions is logistically challenging and very expensive–probably near $20 million per test. Thus–as Yucca Mountain Project critics like to point out–there is no real-life basis for concluding the casks can survive such extreme circumstances.

The third element in the NRC’s list of standards–the 30-minute, all-engulfing fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit–is the one that turned attention to the Baltimore blaze. Firefighters here reported whole train cars aglow from the heat of the tunnel fire. On the second day of the fire, Baltimore City Fire Department officials told the press that the temperature in the tunnel was as high as 1,500 degrees. If the hottest part of the fire rose above 1,475 degrees for more than 30 minutes–as appears likely, though technical analysis has yet to prove it–then the Howard Street tunnel fire achieved a rare intensity that gives pause to nuclear-waste- transportation experts.

Questions to NEI’s press office about whether casks are designed to survive a fire as intense as Baltimore’s was reported to be were referred to Robert Jones, a Los Gatos, Calif., nuclear engineer who designed casks for General Electric for 13 years and now works as a nuclear-industry consultant. Jones was skeptical about whether the Baltimore fire actually exceeded the design standard for casks. If it did, he says, it would be a singular event. Jones cites a government study showing that the probability of an actual railroad fire exceeding the regulatory conditions is less than 1/10 of 1 percent.

“I’ll wager that 1,500 degrees did not exist totally for a day and a half” in the Howard Street tunnel, Jones says. He acknowledges, though, that if it did, “there’s a potential for some release. But we’re not talking about this thing blowing up.” Rather, he explains, “the leakage, if it was to occur, is likely to be a radioactive gas that would be dispersed.”

Daniel Bullen, who sits on the federal Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board , concurs with Jones. “Would there potentially be a release? Yes,” says Bullen, an Iowa State University engineering professor who used to run that school’s now-closed nuclear-reactor laboratory. Foreseeing the questions his answer raises, he fires off a quick interview with himself: “Would it be a significant release? Probably not. Would it be hard to find? No, because radiation is pretty easy to find. Would it be difficult to remediate? Maybe. You might have to move a lot of dirt and clean up a lot of surface and stuff. But would it be significantly life-threatening? Probably not.”

“Oh, this guy’s just shooting from the hip,” Marvin Resnikoff says upon hearing Bullen’s characterization of the effects of a long-burning 1,500-degree fire. Resnikoff, a physicist, heads Radioactive Waste Management Associates, a New York-based consulting firm that specializes in analyzing nuclear-waste safety. The state of Nevada recently hired him to look at the Howard Street tunnel fire and report on its implications for safe transport of spent nuclear fuel. The report is due to be completed this month; when it’s released, Resnikoff asserts, “we’ll have much more definitive answers.”

In the meantime, Resnikoff offers a glimpse of what he’s learning. If the fire turns out to be as hot as reported–and his analysis will establish whether or not it was–then a potential release would include other materials besides radioactive gas.

“There are particulates,” he says. “We are concerned about cesium 137 because it is semivolatile. And we are concerned about cobalt 60, to a lesser extent, because that material is on the outside” of spent-fuel assemblies and could be released more quickly in the event of a leak. Cesium 137 and cobalt 60 are radioactive carcinogens that have half-lives of 30 and five years, respectively, so they represent a long-term cancer risk. They emit gamma rays, which, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet, “can easily pass completely through the human body or be absorbed by tissue, thus constituting a radiation hazard for the entire body.” Based on the weather conditions that existed during the Baltimore fire, Resnikoff estimates that a radioactive smoke plume exiting the southern terminus of the tunnel would have spread perilously close to Camden Yards.

Until the report is concluded and released, Resnikoff declines to give any more details of his concerns about what could have happened if nuclear waste had been in the Howard Street tunnel fire. Robert Halstead, transportation adviser for the Nevada Office of Nuclear Projects, which hired Resnikoff to study the Baltimore fire, is much more candid.

If the fire was hot enough for a long enough time to compromise the casks and cause a leak, Halstead says, “you are going to be concerned with this plume of smoke carrying cesium and some other fission products. Obviously it’s bad if you breathe it, but also, because it is a big-time emitter of gamma radiation, there is direct radiation from the plume. If anything’s been deposited on the ground, it’s irradiating the area also. It would cause a very big cleanup problem.

“So you basically would face this terrible choice,” Halstead says. “You could easily spend in excess of $5 [billion] to $10 billion to clean the area. Or you could simply quarantine the area. The real answer on this is that you are probably going to have a situation where you’ve spent money rather than lives. There probably aren’t going to be thousands of latent cancer fatalities, but you are going to have to spend hundreds of millions or billions of dollars to prevent that. That’s a pretty fair ballpark [figure].”

If Resnikoff concludes that the Baltimore fire actually could damage a nuclear-waste-transportation cask enough to cause a radiation leak, the question becomes how to ensure that nuclear waste bound for Yucca Mountain (or anywhere else, for that matter) is never subjected to such an accident. This opens up a whole other area of debate–some experts contend the shipping risks are minimal, while others assert transportation is the weakest link in the nuclear-waste-management chain.

Jones, the cask designer, points out that rail shipments of spent nuclear fuel are made on dedicated trains, hauling only nuclear-waste casks. That reduces the probability of waste being in a contained, inaccessible environment, such as a train tunnel, along with volatile chemicals and other materials that, when burning, can create extremely high temperatures for a long period of time. (The train that caught fire under Howard Street, for example, was loaded with wood and paper products.) Furthermore, shipping schedules can be coordinated to eliminate the possibility that a dedicated nuclear-waste train and a mixed-freight train with hazardous materials are in the same tunnel at the same time.

“You know, railroads don’t just cut things loose and say we’ll see you at the other end,” Jones says. “They’re very good at tracking these things. So the circumstances that would have to exist in order to have an environment where a spent-fuel train would be in that Baltimore tunnel fire or its equivalent is just extraordinary. A billion to one. It virtually isn’t going to happen, just because that’s the way the business is structured.”

Resnikoff counters that “there is no regulation that says that nuclear-waste shipments will be by dedicated train. It would all be voluntary on the industry’s part. If they’d like to sign a requirement that it will be by dedicated train, that would make a big difference. It costs more money to have a dedicated train. Do they want to put up the money? [That] is the question.”

“It’s perfectly credible that you could have one or two casks of spent fuel in a mixed-freight train going through that Baltimore tunnel,” Halstead maintains. His reasoning is based on cost. In all likelihood, dedicated trains will be used to make large hauls of nuclear waste. But the small amount of waste at Calvert Cliffs–930 metric tons, about 1/10 of 1 percent of the nation’s growing inventory of spent nuclear fuel–may well end up on trains carrying a variety of other materials.

“A contractor working for the Department of Energy who got [its] contract on a low-bid basis would be tempted to shave nickels and dimes by transporting a small number of casks a short distance on a mixed-freight train–say, from Calvert Cliffs maybe up to Harrisburg [Pa.],” Halstead says. There, he speculates, the Calvert Cliffs casks would be transferred to a dedicated train carrying other waste from other reactors in the region.

Calvert Cliffs spokesperson Karl Neddenien cautions that “at this point there is no plan whatsoever as to where and how the shipments will go. It’s wide open.” He notes that Calvert Cliffs is right next to the Chesapeake Bay, so “it may turn out to be safer to put it on a barge to go down to Norfolk, Va., to a railhead. We don’t know.” He acknowledges that Yucca Mountain planning documents do show a proposed route through the Howard Street tunnel but says nothing is set in stone.

And Bullen, of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, suggests the proposed route may be changed in light of this summer’s events. “I’d be surprised if they let them use that tunnel after the fire,” he says.

Another problem with shipping waste by train is that “there are no federal regulations that govern the selection of shipping routes for rail,” Halstead says. “There are for trucks, and the highway routes are generally selected to minimize shipments through highly populated areas, but there aren’t any equivalent regulations for rail.” He suggests laws that prevent the use of two-way tunnels and require circuitous routing and dedicated trains.

“Why in the world would we allow spent fuel to be shipped in mixed-freight trains in the first place?” Halstead says. “And, secondly, if they were in mixed-freight trains, who would be stupid enough to run them through dangerous areas? Congress should just say, ‘Bang, you will not ship any spent fuel in mixed-freight trains.’ My god, what could be more common sense than that?”

His harsh critique of the existing waste-transport system notwithstanding, Halstead says he is not against nuclear power. “I personally think that there is a very good green case to be made for nuclear power,” he says. But after years of studying the industry and how it’s regulated, he says, he finds it “just pathetic that the people running this business are incapable of doing it technically and in a way that would have public confidence.”

The public is going to have plenty of opportunity to express its confidence, or lack thereof, in the Yucca Mountain Project as it winds through the approval process. Based on NRC’s assessment of the site’s scientific and technical feasibility, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and President Bush are expected to give the plan the green light later this year. Then Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn and that state’s legislature will have an opportunity to veto that decision–something they’re assured to do. Once Nevada rejects it, Congress gets the final say by a simple majority vote of both houses. Along the way, lawsuits brought by the state of Nevada and coalitions of environmental groups will throw up roadblocks. All together, this level of contention is bound to attract big media attention and raise Yucca Mountain’s profile as a national issue.

In the meantime, a major snafu has cast a shadow over Yucca. In late July, the Las Vegas Sun reported that for the last six years, the same Chicago law firm that the Department of Energy has been paying to provide legal services in support of Yucca Mountain has been lobbying on behalf of the NEI to get the project built. The firm, Winston & Strawn, and the NEI severed their relationship shortly after reporters called for comment on the apparent conflict of interest. “This situation,” Guinn wrote to Abraham in an Aug. 1 letter, “presents serious issues concerning conflict of interest and possible bias in the site evaluation process” for Yucca Mountain.

Around the same time, in an incident seized upon by anti-Yucca forces to bolster their case, a leaking cask was discovered on a truck carrying low-level nuclear waste through Nevada. No radioactive material escaped, but the July 30 incident served as a reminder of a leaky container found on a truck in Arizona in 1997–and that one did release radioactivity, leading to a suspension of additional shipments until corrective measures were put in place. Guinn promptly fired off another letter to Abraham: “It appears DOE’s protocol for the transportation of nuclear waste is seriously ineffective in protecting public health and the environment.”

Critics’ concerns about the Yucca Mountain Project aside, most everyone agrees that the technology doesn’t exist today to allow the waste to be stored on-site at the nation’s 72 nuclear-reactor sites for 10,000 years, until it has cooled off enough to be relatively safe. “It’s gotta go someplace, it can’t just stay around forever where it is,” says Robert Jones, the former GE nuclear engineer. As the nation has already invested $6 billion to $8 billion in the Yucca site, Jones contends, we should move forward with it. But it will cost another $50 billion to bring the Yucca site online; rather than continue throwing good money after bad, Nevada’s Sen. Reid contends, the Bush administration should scrap Yucca and start anew, finding another site or developing strategies to safely keep the waste where it is.

It remains to be seen how exercised the public will get over the potential hazards of transporting nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. But as bad press, including the doubts about safety posed by the Baltimore fire, feeds into the collective realization that shipments are going to pass within a mile of an estimated 60 million U.S. residents over the course of 30 or 40 years, grass-roots opposition is bound to coalesce. If Resnikoff demonstrates that the Howard Street tunnel fire actually did burn at or about 1,500 degrees for more than a few hours–potentially enough to break a cask and cause a radioactive release–Yucca’s opponents’ arsenal will be stocked with a credible, real-life incident that raises serious doubts about the current framework for shipping the waste.

“The issue of waste transportation to Yucca Mountain is lurking on the national horizon,” Nevada Agency for Nuclear Waste Projects executive director Robert Loux wrote in an Aug. 16 guest column in the Las Vegas Sun, “like a thousand-pound gorilla waiting to pounce.”

Pardon Our Filth: City Sewage Keeps Flowing Into The Bay While Baltimore’s Sewer System Gets a Billion-Dollar Fix

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By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 19, 2007

David Schmidt is president of a marine-supply company in Hanover, Pa., who keeps a boat in a slip at Canton Cove Marina, where Linwood Avenue ends at the harbor. As he approaches the marina gate and gangway on Sept. 12, he notices me and another paddler holding back gags as we nose our kayaks toward the storm water that empties into the harbor beneath the waterfront promenade in front of two condominium buildings there. Schmidt sees us look down at the gray-colored water we’re floating in, into the darkness of the tunnels where it’s coming from, and then back down at the water.

“It’s raw sewage coming out of the storm drain,” Schmidt says flatly as he walks along the dock. “I’m down here all the time for the last five years, and it’s been going like that the whole time. It’s not always this bad, but it’s always bad. God forbid anybody fall in. You should see it when it rains.”

There’s been no rain to speak of for weeks, and yet here is enough sewage to turn the water at the marina a striking shade of gray and to thoroughly stink up the surrounding blocks. It’s entering the harbor out of a drain outlet, or “outfall,” that’s designed to funnel runoff from city streets and pavements when it rains, not the waste water that the city’s sewage system funnels to its water treatment plants. If there had been a good, hard rain, then one might expect some sewage in the storm drain; the sewer pipes running down streambeds tend to get hit by large objects in storms, sometimes getting blown open and causing nasty messes downstream. But there had been no storm. There had to be some other explanation.

Schmidt keeps talking. He’s indignant but resigned, complaining that he pumps out his boat sewage so it won’t get in the Chesapeake Bay, as the law says he must, and the city should, too. But apparently, he concludes, the city would rather keep paying fines than obey the law.

Schmidt has many ways to complain about the odor, perhaps because that’s the main topic of the conversations he has with others who rent slips here. “I got my boat sealed up so I can go down below and get away from it,” Schmidt says, and points to other boats similarly protected. “But you never really can. That restaurant”–he points at the nearby Bay Café–“keeps its patio awnings zipped up on this side because of it. That pool next to it [at Tindeco Wharf] is hardly used, most of the time. Look at all those condo windows,” he says, gesturing at the Canton Cove building. “Nice weather, but they’re closed up tight. Same thing. It’s the smell.”

Schmidt walks onto his boat and goes below, and we glide away in our kayaks, marveling that fish are jumping just 50 yards away from the foul outfall. What’s more, a quarter-mile away, at the bulkhead of the Korean War Memorial Park, men are fishing for those fish.

The Linwood Avenue outfall has been polluting the harbor with sewage, on and off, for a long time. Schmidt’s account confirms what I’ve occasionally observed firsthand while kayaking or walking by here since the late 1990s. The federal Clean Water Act calls for all U.S. waters to be returned to swimmable and fishable conditions, and while fish sometimes jump near here, swimming, while never advisable, would at times be suicidal. So the next day, I call the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice, which enforce the Clean Water Act, to find out whether or not the sewage coming into the harbor from under Linwood Avenue is somehow allowed. After a couple of short back-and-forths about what was observed, it quickly becomes clear that it is not.

“We’d be very interested in investigating,” adds Angela McFadden, a high-ranking pollution enforcement officer at the EPA, in a Sept. 24 phone conversation, “because I am not aware of any continuous discharges of untreated sewage going on.”

The EPA and the DOJ are the plaintiffs, along with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), in a Clean Water Act lawsuit in U.S. District Court filed against the city of Baltimore a decade ago over its illegally leaky sewer system. Five years ago, a “consent decree” was entered in the matter. Under the decree, the city must spend almost a billion dollars over 14 years, starting in late 2002, to get its sewer system into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. So far, with less than a decade to go, the city has spent nearly $260 million and has repeatedly raised water-and-sewer rates to pay for it.

A few weeks pass of phone tag punctuated by short conversations with the EPA and DOJ, and as September turns to October, I file a request to look at the EPA’s consent-decree records and periodically return to the Linwood Avenue outfall. The scent of sewage becomes less intense over time, but it still has that unmistakable reek, especially right after it first starts to rain and whatever’s pooled up in the pipes during the dry weather gets flushed out.

Meanwhile, the city’s 311 system for logging citizen complaints and service requests steadily registers calls from along Linwood Avenue as it heads north from the waterfront into the city. The 311 system is alerted seven times about sewer odors along the Linwood corridor during September, and another nine times for the 12 months prior to that. Some of the calls are quite specific about the source, describing “a strong sewer smell coming from the storm drain in the street,” for instance, or “a very strong sewer odor coming from the inlet.” On Election Day, Sept. 11, the day before Schmidt talks to us in our kayaks, someone reports that it “smells like sewage inside and out” of a house on Linwood, two blocks north of the outfall.

Citywide, 31 other complaint calls came in to 311 operators in September about sewer odors. “There is a strong sewer odor in the area,” the city is notified by a caller from the Northwest Community Action neighborhood, on the west side near Walbrook Junction. Another caller points out that there is a “strong odor of sewage in the air” at East North Avenue and Broadway, near the Great Blacks in Wax Museum. A “bad sewer smell” is reported at Gay and Lombard streets, a block off the harbor downtown, and a “very powerful sewer smell” is noted in Waverly. “A very strong sewage smell is coming from the pond” in the woods behind Uplands, another caller notes, giving the location where Maiden Choice Run begins its rough-and-tumble journey through Southwest Baltimore before it reaches the Gwynns Falls just above Carroll Park. The list goes on.

Aside from the sewage stench rising from below the streets, the 311 system also logged a myriad of complaints that sewage was flowing in city streets, sidewalks, alleys, and into storm drains in September, which was an extremely dry month with less than half an inch of rain. As the weeks passed, the city responded to a total of 19 calls described as reporting “sewer overflows” and “sewer leaks,” and numerous other calls that described sewage flowing in the streets. When sewage runs on the streets, it enters storm drains and, ultimately, enters the Chesapeake Bay. How to estimate that flow–especially at a storm-drain outlet like the one at Linwood Avenue, which is designed to be partially submerged in the Patapsco River’s tides–is anybody’s guess.

The consent decree requires the city of Baltimore to estimate the amount of sewage released in leaks the city deems reportable, so if anyone’s trying to guess how much Baltimore City sewage is leaking, it’s the city’s Department of Public Works. It looks like DPW is lowballing it.

Whenever an “unauthorized discharge of wastewater” from the city’s sewage collection system into “any waters” of the United States, the consent decree dictates that a written report must be provided to EPA within five days. In the report, the city must describe the cause, duration, and volume of the flow, as well as “corrective actions or plans to eliminate future discharges” at the site and “whether or not the overflow has caused, or contributed to, an adverse impact on water quality in the receiving water body.”

Once DPW estimates the amount of sewage that leaked and reports it, the city is subject to fines based on the number of gallons of sewage that the city says leaked. Since January 2003, EPA records reflect the city has been levied fines totaling $416,200 (the payments are split evenly between EPA and MDE) for 255 reported leaks.

The sewer-leak reporting also forms part of the quarterly reports that the city must prepare and submit under the consent decree, to keep all the plaintiffs up to date on progress in improving the sewer system’s performance. The tally of reported leaks listed in the quarterly reports since December 2002 is 419, releasing a total estimate of nearly 190 million gallons. The smallest reported leak was 12 gallons lost to Western Run, which joins the Jones Falls near Mount Washington, on a rainy day in April 2004. The largest was the July 2004 bulkhead failure at Braddish Avenue behind St. Peter’s Cemetery in West Baltimore, which released a rush of sewage into the Gwynns Falls initially estimated to be 36.25 million gallons, though online MDE records put the guess at 1.5 million gallons.

The trend on paper has been fewer leaks reported as the consent decree progresses, with 143 reported for 2003 and 72 reported for 2006. By the end of June this year, summary details on 31 leaks were included in the quarterly reports, so 2007 appears headed for an even lower total.

As of Nov. 7, when I went to Philadelphia to review EPA’s consent-decree files, the city of Baltimore had not notified the agency of any reportable sewer leaks occurring in September 2007. There were some reported in August and some in October, but none in September. Thus, whatever spewed raw sewage out into the harbor at the end of Linwood Avenue in September, and whatever prompted citizens citywide to lodge complaints about sewer leaks, overflows, and odors over the course of that very dry month, it wasn’t sewer leaks reported by the city under the consent decree. It must have been something else.

Oddly, the 311-calling public appears to be more attuned to sewage leaking in Baltimore City when the leaks aren’t reported under the consent decree than when they are. A year before, in September 2006, when at 7.5 inches there was nearly twice the historic average rainfall for that month, the situation was reversed. The city reported five sewer discharges totaling 39,255 gallons, occurring in Waltherson, Grove Park, Cherry Hill, Violetville, and the state’s Juvenile Justice Center on Gay Street downtown. But on 311, not a single call about a sewer leak or overflow came in all month long.

“The consent decree requires the City to report releases from the collection system that reach receiving waters or storm sewers,” EPA spokesman David Sternberg writes to City Paper in a Dec. 7 e-mail. “It does not require the City to report releases that don’t meet these criteria (i.e., basement backups).”

Perhaps September’s citywide sewage funk that had residents reaching for their phones–and sewage contaminating the marina where Schmidt keeps his boat–was due to something as routine and hard to stop as a whole lot of basement backups occurring during what amounted to a drought. And perhaps the absence of 311 sewer-leak complaints in September 2006, when heavy rains prompted the city to report one big leak and grease clogs caused four smaller ones to be reported, is attributable to the fact that the leaks the city detected were in areas where residents didn’t see or smell them.

But one thing is clear, based on the September flow out of the Linwood Avenue outfall: Sewage from Baltimore City is getting into the storm drains and, thus, into the bay–a lot more sewage than the amounts being reported by the city under the consent decree.

“The harbor is being polluted with sewer overflows, especially at Linwood Avenue,” Phil Lee explains. As a founder of the Baltimore Harbor Watershed Association and an engineer, he’s being asked to comment about the Linwood outfall and its impact, and he says he’s spoken with environmental authorities about it over the years. At some point, he says, he was told that an “illicit connection into the storm-drain system upstream” was contributing to the problem. “I don’t think they’ve fixed it,” he observes, adding that “it’s still like Old Faithful.”

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Lee’s not the only one who’s been keeping track of the Linwood Avenue outfall. A man whom Lee calls “a one-man army” in the cause of tracking sewer problems, Guy Hollyday, has been telling authorities about it for years.

Hollyday’s group, the Baltimore Sanitary Sewer Oversight Coalition, targeted the Linwood Avenue outfall as an “acute” sewer problem–one of three it had identified citywide–during a meeting held for city officials at Loyola College in November 2005. The group, formed in 2000 when four Baltimore watershed groups combined and coordinated their ongoing efforts to keep sewage out of city streams, issued its annual report for 2006 in May this year, updating the situation.

The report pinpointed an illegal sewer connection to the storm-drain system at the site of Pompeian Inc., an olive oil bottling company located on Pulaski Highway in East Baltimore, about two miles away from the outfall as the crow flies. It’s not clear whether the illegal connection has anything to do with Pompeian or if it just happens to meet the storm drains under the company’s property; attempts to contact Pompeian for comment were unsuccessful. Based on information from the city, however, the group’s summary explained that 300 feet of sewer pipe upstream had been lined to try to keep the sewage from entering the storm-drain system there, but as of September 2005, with sewage still entering the storm drain, the city had resolved to replace the next section of sewer downstream, too.

“It’s still not fixed, as far as I know,” Hollyday says over lunch at nearby Kiss Café in late November.

He’s right. In a Dec. 10 e-mail, DPW spokesman Kurt Kocher identifies the illegal connection at the olive oil company’s property, and explains that “the city is awaiting this company’s final plan for plant expansion,” which “will include a new proposal for the relocation of the sewer line” that’s been causing problems. “The city has continued to keep [MDE] informed on the status of this project,” Kocher adds, though apparently EPA has not been in the loop. Nothing about it appeared in the voluminous EPA files reviewed by City Paper, and the EPA’s Angela McFadden had not heard of the sewage appearing at the Linwood Avenue outfall, much less where it might be coming from.

In all likelihood, sewage will from time to time continue to contaminate the harbor at the Linwood Avenue storm-water outfall. Citizens, whose rising water and sewer rates are paying for the billion-dollar sewer-system overhaul, will endure the fouled water and reeking air until the sewer is fixed at Pompeian Inc. If the sewage still flows then, the city likely will seek out and fix other sources of sewage in the storm drains as more years pass. Perhaps it will turn out to be an never-ending battle, and there always will be sewage flowing into the harbor beneath Linwood Avenue, for as long as people flush toilets and have basement backups in Baltimore.

But none of that changes the course of progress. DPW is deeply proud of its work so far under the consent decree, and is bound to stay that way. “As of this date,” Kocher wrote in his Dec. 10 e-mail, “all but 5 of [39] construction projects [required under the consent decree] have been completed and 54 engineered [sewage] overflow structures have been eliminated.” Up next are sewershed studies and sewer flow monitoring across the city, he continued, which aim to root out the sources of unpermitted sewage discharges. “The current estimate of the program at $900 million,” Kocher concluded, “continues to be a reasonable estimate at this time,” adding that once the upcoming studies are completed “the City will be able to better refine that estimate.”

Because of the progress that has already been made, and because of more progress that’s required before the consent decree expires, Lee believes in swimmable, fishable harbor water by 2020–that’s what the law has set out to do. His optimism is commendable and was likely shared widely in 1972, when the original Clean Water Act first passed, calling for swimmable, fishable waters by 1983. But 2020’s a long time away, and hundreds of millions of dollars still has to be spent in a little less than a decade on sewer improvements. Lee seems truly to believe it’s doable, and he sees the sewage flowing beneath Linwood Avenue, while a longstanding condition, as a temporary one requiring patience before the city finally puts an end to it.

When it comes to water-quality issues, Darin Crew has to be nearly as adept at understanding sewersheds as he is at understanding watersheds. He came to Baltimore to take a job at the Herring Run Watershed Association, aiming to improve water quality in the Northeast Baltimore watershed, which is a tributary to Back River in Baltimore County. That was 2003, and in February of that year, the Herring Run hosted what was immediately billed as one of the worst sewage spills in city history. An estimated 36 million gallons of sewage was released after two massive sewer lines embedded in the stream became blocked.

Four months later, in June 2003, an estimated 35 million gallons of sewage leaked out of a damaged manhole along Herring Run, poking a hole in the largest-in-city-history theory about the first one. The following May and July brought two more 30 million gallon-plus gushers at Braddish Avenue, affecting the Gwynns Falls. For Crew, knowing about the weak links in the sewer system in Herring Run’s drainage area was to be a major part of his new job.

“It’s right down here, directly beneath this bridge,” Crew says as he pulls up in his pickup truck. The Mannasota Avenue bridge spans Herring Run, connecting the Belair-Edison and Parkside neighborhoods, and Crew promises to show me and a City Paperphotographer that sewage is running out of the storm drain constructed in the bridge foundation. We follow Crew as he scrambles down the stream bank and goes under the bridge. Concrete was used to channel Herring Run as it passes beneath the bridge, and the clear water coming out of the storm drain splashes on it and runs, pooling here and there, into the clear running stream. There’s no odor of sewage.

“It doesn’t always smell,” Crew explains. “You can tell that sewage is a likely component of what’s coming out of here by the gray scum that collects on the surfaces wherever the water is for any period of time. It’s just gray scum. Other than that, you can measure ammonia in the water. That’s a pretty good indicator. And the ammonia levels are always pretty high here. This flows about a gallon a minute, and that works out to be 60 gallons an hour–you do the math. It’s a constant flow, except when it rains. And this low-level kind of thing, by itself, doesn’t really do much damage, water quality-wise, given all that’s already getting into the stream. But it’s still a problem.”

“What about that one over there?” the photographer asks, pointing across Herring Run to another outfall coming out of the opposite stream bank. “I don’t know, let’s go see,” Crew suggests. Again, the water is clear. But this time the sewage odor hits while approaching the opening. “Whoa, that’s definitely sewage,” Crew says of the smell. But there’s no telltale gray scum. Turns out, there’s another outfall beneath the one the photographer spotted, and down there–it takes some effort and contortions to see it–there’s plenty of gray scum forming as the clear storm-drain water courses out of the pipe and into Herring Run.

“Taken all together,” Crew concludes, “these types of small, steady sewage leaks do become a serious water-quality problem. It’s not as serious as the 30 million gallons that came down here a few years ago, but it’s a problem, and I think it’s about time we kicked up the enforcement effort on this kind of thing.” He shows us one more example, under a bridge on Hillen Road next to the Mount Pleasant Golf Course, and gets back to work.

On Nov. 30, the photographer and I go to the 4500 block of Fairfax Road in West Baltimore’s Windsor Hills, looking for a plumber. A&A Plumbing is listed at an address on this block, and, since no one from the business had returned a phone message, we came to knock on the door. Once there, we found three men in baseball caps standing beside three pickup trucks, backed up toward the entrance. They know nothing of the plumber listed at that address.

“What, are you bondsmen?” one asks, and everyone laughs.

I explain that we’re almost as unwelcome, under most circumstances: the press. But when it becomes clear that the story has to do with the city’s efforts to fix its chronically leaky sewer system, and that this area has a particularly rough history of sewer problems, and that a plumber’s anecdotes of Windsor Hills sewage nightmares was sought, the three men grow friendly and relaxed. One, a 40-year-old truck driver from Randallstown who introduces himself as Rick Edwards, steps up and starts talking.

“I keep my boat down at the harbor,” Edwards explains, “at Canton Cove Marina at the end of Linwood Avenue. Been keeping it there like four or five years, and there’s sewage coming out of the storm drain there, stinking things up so bad I hardly even use my boat anymore. Can’t even go sit on your boat down there, can’t entertain or have friends down, because it smells so bad.” The infamous outfall’s reputation apparently remains intact all the way across town in Windsor Hills.

We take leave of the men to check out the sewer-main stacks protruding up from the streambed next to the Windsor Hills Conservation Trail, at the end of the block. We return a half-hour later to announce there’s no sewer odor, but the water coming out of the storm drain shows evidence of the likely presence of sewage: gray scum on the rocks and concrete where the water runs.

“The boats down at the marina,” Edwards says, “you have to clean gray scum off of the bottom of them, just like the stuff you see on them rocks. It’s the same stuff. I’ve had it scrubbed and cleaned off, and it looks like it grows off the bottom of the boat, literally. It’s just this muck.

“There’s sewage coming out all over. But what’re you gonna do? I talked to a city worker about it, he said the pipes are so old, it’s just always going to leak, and they’ll just keep on trying to catch up with them all. The leaks up here, on this street, they don’t go to Linwood Avenue, but it all ends up in the same place eventually.”

Edwards is standing seven miles away, in a straight line, from the Linwood Avenue outfall. Sewage that leaks here travels downhill to the end of Fairfax Road, where it drains downstream into the Gwynns Falls and, having joined up with more sewage-laden water as it goes, reaches the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River right near the BRESCO waste incinerator. From there, it joins the Patapsco’s North Branch–better known as the Baltimore harbor–at Fort McHenry. Right across the harbor from Fort McHenry is the Canton Cove Marina, where Edwards wishes he no longer kept his boat, and where David Schmidt complained in full three-part harmony that September day to two kayakers about the powerful dose of sewage coming out of the Linwood Avenue outfall. Everything, as they say, is connected.

“It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even want to be on the bay at all,” Edwards says of what the sewage, and pollution in general, is doing to his boating habits. “At this point, I think I’d rather be in Ocean City, any day.”

We say goodbye and drive up the hill from Fairfax Road onto Talbot Street, pulling over to speak with a gentleman raking leaves on the curb. “Sure, I know about the sewer problems over the years,” he says. “They did a lot of work trying to fix them in the ’70s and ’80s, and they did more in the ’90s. Used to hear the heavy machinery down in the Gwynns Falls, and now they’re doing more under the streets here. As for the details, I’m probably not the best person to ask. That house right there”–and he points to one across the way–“David Carroll lives there. He’s some kind of environmental expert. You should ask him.”

“David Carroll,” he announces, when he picks up the phone at his Towson office in early December. Carroll is the director of the Baltimore County Department of Environmental and Resource Management, an agency that manages a sewage system under a consent decree much like Baltimore City’s, which went into effect in 2005 and involves the same plaintiffs. He’s held similar high-level public positions as an environmental manager in Baltimore City and in state and federal government over the years, including a stint as MDE secretary under Gov. William Donald Schaefer in the 1980s and ’90s. This impressive résumé qualifies Carroll, in the words of his neighbor in Windsor Hills, as “some kind of environmental expert.”

But Carroll is also a longtime resident of Windsor Hills, where sewer leaks have historically plagued the city’s underground pipes, and that gives him some personal perspective on the impact of sewage on city neighborhoods, and the challenges of making improvements to sewer systems.

“Frankly, we haven’t tracked it all that closely,” Carroll says of the Windsor Hills community’s sewage-leak monitoring efforts. “We got together and started the Windsor Hills Conservation Trail, there at the end of Fairfax Road, and people out on the trail have been reporting leaks there for the last 10, 15 years. There have been lots of leaks reported over the years, but it’s been pretty sporadic, given the fact that we’re not really monitoring it in an organized fashion.

“The community association in the neighborhood has been working with the Windsor Hills Elementary School,” he continues, “to use those sanitary stacks sticking up in the stream along the conservation trail as education tools. And that’s important, because the neighborhood kids actually do swim in the Gwynns Falls. And, in fact, the effort’s working. There was an environmental festival for the schoolchildren down along the stream, and some kids jumped into a pool of water in the Gwynns Falls, and another kid said, `Get out of there! There are fecals all in there!’ He was talking about fecal coliform, and that kid understands it’s in the water and it’s dangerous, and he’s telling other kids that. That’s good.”

Carroll has heard of the ongoing stench and foul water coming out of the Linwood Avenue outfall–“that one’s pretty infamous,” he says–but he’s not convinced, even with all the expensive sewer reconstruction and extensive efforts to curtail the sewage entering the harbor, that the harbor will ever improve to the swimmable, fishable standard set forth in the Clean Water Act.

“When we get all the pipes working as they should, we’ll still have all this organic matter in the system–crap from geese and dogs and cats, dead animals, the grease and oil and food scraps and trash that gets washed off the streets, all the rest of it. And we’ll still have a problem. And then what are we going to do? But the first thing you got to do is get the human stuff out of there. And as this gets done, there will be major improvements in the amounts of raw sewage going into our streams.

“As for the city,” Carroll continues, “it’s just this network of really old sewers, and there’s a lot to do. Blockages occur in the main sewer lines, and the resulting backups usually cause leaks–that, or a standing [sanitary] stack gets severed, or a pumping station fails. Grease collecting in the lines and clogging them–that’s a big problem. The way we do it, every time that happens, if there’s anything at all that leaks–anything, it doesn’t matter if it’s a gallon or not–we have to report it to MDE and EPA, even if it doesn’t reach the waters of the state. It’s anything that leaks. Zero tolerance, that’s the threshold.

“But it’s not the amount of sewage spilled that matters,” Carroll emphasizes. “It’s the impact it has on water quality on an ongoing basis. And the big overarching context here is this–you want us to get swimmable and fishable waters, but how do you do that? Where has it worked? I’ve got sunfish in the Gwynns Falls, but is it really ever going to be safe to swim in it? Because there’s still going to be a lot of things that make the water yucky that are still going to be there, after all this work on the sewers is said and done. And that’s what the public, who’s paying for all of this, doesn’t seem to understand. It’s not the message they’re getting. They’re hearing that all this billion dollars of sewer improvements is going to make the harbor clean, but that’s simply not the case.”

City Paper awaits the outcome of the investigation EPA says it’s conducting into the sewage that comes out of the Linwood Avenue storm-drain outfall. Also pending are full responses from EPA, MDE, DPW, and DOJ to two November letters from City Paperabout a variety of consent-decree compliance issues that jumped off the pages of the EPA’s records. As a result of numerous 311 complaints describing what sound very much like sewage leaks that are discharging into city streets, gutters, and storm drains, and yet aren’t reported under the consent decree, a major question was whether the city has been routinely failing to report leaks as required. DPW provided a partial response in a Dec. 7 e-mail.

“The majority of the [311] complaints listed in your letter pertain to sewage in basements,” the statement reads in part. “These types of complaints are not applicable to reporting under the consent decree. At some locations listed, the 311 complaint code was characterized as a sanitary sewer overflow, however, there was no associated report sent to the regulators. This is due to a variety of reasons,” but in most cases “it appears that [DPW] corrected certain problems but did not observe a reportable discharge.”

In essence, the statement says DPW reports all sewer leaks, as required, without exception. Yet the Baltimore Sanitary Sewer Oversight Coalition’s Guy Hollyday says he’s been pointing out ongoing sewer leaks to DPW for years, and DPW’s been confirming that they exist and continue leaking, and yet many remain to be fixed. The group’s 2004 annual report, for instance, states that during that year DPW confirmed the existence of 17 ongoing sewer leaks around the city, yet they weren’t repaired. Some, Hollyday says in late November, still haven’t been.

The last time I checked, on the evening of Dec. 10, turbid, brown, debris-laden water was coming out of the Linwood Avenue storm-drain outfall, but it didn’t stink of sewage. The next day, Rick Edwards, the Randallstown truck driver, calls. That gray scum is building up on the hull of his boat, he explains, and he repeats that he’s about had it with all this sewage in the harbor.

“It smells like sewage half the time,” he says. “Everyone is talking about it–it’s a common issue.”

By all appearances, the stench in the harbor is not going to go away anytime soon, so everyone can still go on talking about it until it does–be that 2020, or beyond.

Nic Fit: Puffing Through the Great Vape Debate

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By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 9, 2014

Recently, I started huffing vapors produced by heating up compounds used in some types of antifreeze. If swallowed, the liquid I’m vaporizing can be poisonous, even fatal, especially to children. No one yet knows what the long-term health effects of inhaling this stuff will be, yet it is cheap, widely available, glamorized in advertisements, and almost completely unregulated by the authorities. In some major cities, all of Arkansas, New Jersey, North Dakota, and Utah, and a growing list of towns and counties, it’s illegal to huff this stuff wherever it’s illegal to smoke tobacco.

So why am I using it? It sounds strange, even counterintuitive perhaps, but I’m using it to improve my health.

It is called “vaping,” and the devices I’m using to “vape” are called electronic cigarettes or “e-cigs,” whose rechargeable batteries heat up “e-juice” to release vapors I inhale. The flavored e-juice I use in my new e-cigs contains nicotine, though not all e-juices do. The more I’ve vaped, the fewer cigarettes I’ve been smoking. My smoke-weary lungs have been feeling increasingly better as a result, though my decades-long nicotine addiction continues-for now.

The e-cig industry was hatched in China about a decade ago, and arrived in the U.S. in the mid-2000s. Its remarkably rapid growth has been happening so fast, it’s hard to track, but Wells Fargo Securities, in a series of recent reports put out by its “Tobacco Talk” survey team, now estimates it to be a $2.2 billion industry. The team predicts that it will reach $10 billion by 2017, and that by 2023, one of the biggest tobacco companies, Reynolds American, will realize $5.2 billion in e-cig revenue, compared to $3.1 billion it will reap from peddling traditional cigarettes.

Big bankers, in other words, are banking on the idea that e-cigs will be bigger than cigarettes within a decade. In Maryland, scores of retail vape stores and online e-cig businesses have sprung up in the past year, while three have opened in Baltimore City since last summer, with a fourth scheduled to open this month.

I followed e-cig media coverage for more than a year before making the leap. Navigating the rabbit hole of e-cig information is dizzying, as one is see-sawed from scary messages (Its ingredients are used in antifreeze! E-juice kills babies!) to rational claims that the technology reduces harm among cigarette smokers. While many questions remain about the long-term effects of inhaling the vapors from e-juice’s ingredients-propylene glycol (PG), vegetable glycerin (VG), and the flavorings infused in them-the ingredients themselves are common and approved as safe for use in food by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Both PG and VG are used in antifreezes designed to reduce harm from accidental ingestion, such as those used in machinery involved in food production. Nicotine, meanwhile, is a powerful and addictive stimulant that can be highly toxic, so the recent rise in reported poisonings from e-juice has prompted a media frenzy-and the widespread use of child-proof caps by e-juice makers and warnings by industry leaders that users should take smart, responsible steps to ensure e-juice doesn’t get ingested by children and pets.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on April 4 issued a press release saying that there have been 2,405 e-cig nicotine-poisoning calls to poison centers from September 2010, when there was one call, to February 2014, when there were 215, and more than half of them pertained to kids under 5 years old. To put this in context, though, poison control centers got more that 20,000 calls in 2012 alone about people poisoned by ingesting fluoride toothpaste, and almost all of them involved children 5 or younger.

Inhaled e-cig vapors have been shown in studies to have trace amounts of some harmful compounds-formaldehyde and acrolein, in particular-at levels far below those found in smoke from burning tobacco. As a review of such studies by Drexel University public health professor Igor Burstyn concluded last summer, “no evidence” currently exists that vaping exposes users to contaminants “that would warrant health concerns by the standards that are used to ensure safety of workplaces,” and “exposures of bystanders are likely to be orders of magnitude less, and thus pose no apparent concern.”

The FDA intends to regulate e-cigs by deeming them tobacco products under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009, but the nine-step process of doing so is currently stuck on step four, as the White House Office of Management and Budget reviews whatever the FDA is currently proposing. In the meantime, the FDA says in a statement emailed to City Paper that “further research is needed to assess the potential public health benefits and risks of electronic cigarettes.”

The public-health community is divided on the issue. Some revered medical institutions, like the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, advise against using e-cigs; Mayo says on its web site that “until more is known about the potential risks, the safe play is to say no to electronic cigarettes,” while pointing those who want to quit smoking to the “many FDA-approved medications that have been shown to be safe and effective for this purpose.” Other public-health experts see great promise in e-cigs as a safer alternative to smoking that can help people quit, often more effectively than other FDA-approved options.

Burstyn, in a recent interview with City Paper, says, “If all smokers switched to vaping, it would be the equivalent of them quitting, and it would change the world for the better, in my opinion.” He adds that “all serious scientists are pretty much in agreement that e-cigarettes are the way to go,” while public health professionals who say otherwise “are doing harm, clearly-every time a smoker doesn’t switch to e-cigarettes because of their advice. It’s smoking! One of the most harmful things we do, and so widespread. Their opposition to e-cigs is ideology, it’s not science, and in the end you need to listen to the quality of their arguments and use your own brain.”

In January in the Journal of the American Medical Association, an opinion piece by David Abrams of the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health aired the same concerns about the risk of ideology trumping science in the public health community’s reception of e-cigs.

“If e-cigarettes represent the new frontier,” Abrams wrote, “tobacco control experts must be open to new strategies. Statements based on ideology and insufficient evidence could prevent the use of this opportunity before it becomes established as part of harm reduction strategy.” Regulatory overreach, he suggested, “might support the established tobacco industry, whose rapid entry into the marketplace and history of making potentially misleading claims of harm reduction could promote poly-use of all their tobacco products, and thus perpetuate sales of conventional cigarettes well into the next century rather than speed their obsolescence.” He added that “independent manufacturers of e-cigarettes could compete with tobacco companies and make the cigarette obsolete, just as digital cameras made film obsolete”-a prospect he calls “an extraordinary opportunity to end the cigarette century well before the 100th anniversary” of the first 1964 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on smoking and health.

The controversy over the relative risks of e-cig versus cigarette use “makes no sense to me,” adds Michael Siegel, a physician and public health professor at Boston University. “I’d rather have people use a safer product than a dangerous one,” he tells City Paper in a recent phone interview, adding, “there’s no question [e-cigs are] safer than smoking.” He estimates that e-cigs are currently “saving maybe thousands or tens of thousands of lives” of people who are quitting smoking by using them, and adds that “it’s quite shocking to me, actually, when public-health advocates don’t applaud people quitting in this way. It’s the most promising innovation in my 25-year career.”

The just-released 2014 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report generally withholds judgment on e-cigs but allows that they are likely to be helpful as cigarette use-which the report blames for nearly 21 million premature deaths since 1964, and which, according to the CDC, was down from 42.4 percent of adults in 1965 to almost 18.1 percent in 2012-continues to be stamped out. “The promotion of electronic cigarettes,” the report states, “is much more likely to be beneficial in an environment where the appeal, accessibility, promotion, and use of cigarettes are being rapidly reduced.”

Convinced that vaping wasn’t going to kill me faster than cigarettes, and might actually prolong my life if I could successfully replace cigarettes with e-cigs, on Feb. 16 I went to the Vapory (thevapory.net), Baltimore’s first bricks-and-mortar “vape” shop on Preston Street in Midtown, and paid $57.46, taxes included, for a starter kit and two bottles of tobacco-flavored e-juice.

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The Vapory is in the basement of 19 W. Preston St., so customers step down from the sidewalk to enter the small shop. Its aquamarine walls are crowded with framed prints of old art. Arrayed on nearly all available surfaces are curios: Victorian statuary, skulls, a small bronze of William Donald Schaefer, and figurines of the RCA dog, a caped Robin, and the Super Mario Brothers. The wares for sale-vaping devices, some of them strikingly similar in appearance to the hyposprays made famous by Star Trek’s Dr. Leonard H. “Bones” McCoy, plus accoutrements like carrying cases and colorful tips and tanks, plus rows and rows of e-juice bottles-are in glass display cases. A small table and a couple of chairs are set up for sampling different flavors of e-juices. As if one needed to get more comfortable in this calm, cluttered, bohemian environment, there are two couches in the corner to settle into.

“All out of Thug Juice, but I’m getting more soon,” the Vapory’s owner, 49-year-old Adam Fordham, tells a customer. Flavored with grape, watermelon, and menthol, Thug Juice is one of Fordham’s best-selling e-juices, he says. Made by Bellingham, Wash.-based Mt. Baker Vapor, it’s one of the two brands he carries, the other being Richmond, Va.-based Avail Vapor.

Fordham, a heavyset dandy of a man with a shock of swept-back greying blond hair, used to be an incorrigible smoker. “I was two packs a day for 29 years,” he says, “and I was never going to quit, because I enjoyed it that much.” He first tried vaping, he says, “so I could smoke and drink at a bar,” and “I was very surprised that it replicated” smoking so well. Then “cheapness kicked in,” he continues, as “I saw how much money I was saving. And that’s what really did it for me-especially for someone who never had any intention of quitting smoking. So when that last carton of Marlboros had run out, I didn’t buy any more. And now I’m nearing my one-year anniversary of no cigarettes. I’ve had four drags since, and I couldn’t stand it.”

Fordham opened the Vapory on July 27, 2013, after a long career in what he calls “materials management and supply operations. My first job was as a stockboy at Woolworth’s, and I hardly ever left that. I did it for University of Maryland, did it for Johns Hopkins, and then I was working for a hospital that closed, so I was actually unemployed when I opened the shop. No one was answering my resumes, but I had a short little severance, and I saw how the business was growing, so I thought if I could find a decent space, I could open in time to be the first one in the city.”

The kit Fordham sold to me was manufactured by Shenzhen, China-based Innokin Technology Co. and included two rechargeable batteries, a USB cable and plug for recharging them, and five “cartomizers” that you fill with e-juice and screw into the sleek, black batteries. The cartomizers are clear tanks topped by form-fitting tips and wicks inside them that carry the e-juice to the battery, which, when you push a button to turn it on, vaporizes the e-juice, allowing you to inhale the fumes through the tip. When the cartomizer runs low on e-juice, you add more from the bottles.

The nicotine content of the 25 milliliters (ml) of e-juice I bought from the Vapory-18 milligrams (mg) per ml-means it is the nicotine-equivalent of approximately 375 cigarettes, since each cigarette delivers about 1.2 mg of nicotine (an admittedly rough estimate). Thus, for a little less than $60, I purchased the ability to vape about the same amount of nicotine as I would take in by smoking almost 19 packs of cigarettes costing about $7.50 each-or $140, give or take a few bucks.

This was clearly a huge bargain compared to smoking cigarettes, and the potential savings grew eye-popping as the weeks passed. In March, I went to Bmore Vapes (bmorevapes.com) on Light Street in Federal Hill-the second vape shop to open in the city-and purchased three 10-ml bottles of e-juice containing 24 mg/ml of nicotine, flavored to taste like rum, whiskey, and honey-infused tobacco. Their higher nicotine concentration means each bottle contains the nicotine-equivalent of 10 packs of cigarettes. The three bottles cost about $15, potentially replacing about $225 worth of smokes.

I added to my e-juice collection at Gypsy Vape (gypsy-vape.com), a recently opened shop just inside the Beltway on Route 40 West, by buying three 12-mg nicotine bottles flavored to taste like spiced tobacco, rum, and caramel coffee. Then I returned to the Vapory to buy three more cartomizers for another $15, so I could have eight cartomizers to match my eight flavors.

All told, I’ve spent a little over $100 to become a well-stocked vaper-and my e-juice supplies, which look likely to last me for months to come, contain the same amount of nicotine as roughly 1,275 cigarettes, or about 64 packs, which would have cost me in the neighborhood of $500.

I’m about six weeks into vaping now, and I’m still buying and smoking cigarettes. But the amount I’m smoking has regularly decreased as I’ve come to enjoy vaping more and more to satisfy my need for nicotine. Whereas I used to smoke a half-pack a day, usually a little more, I recently re-upped after taking five days to go through a pack. So I’m at about four cigarettes a day: one in the morning, two during the day, and one before bed. That’s puts me within reach of quitting entirely-which I now intend to do, since, unlike ever before in my long smoking career, it seems like a reasonably obtainable goal.

When I tell Fordham I’m still smoking, albeit less and less, he tries to encourage me by gently shaming me. “What’s the point?” he says. “Segue, dude, you gotta segue.”

Stories about customers who’ve successfully quit smoking start flowing out of Fordham. “I have one guy, he smoked as much as me,” he recalls. “He came in on my second day in business, and he hasn’t smoked since, and since then people come in because they know Larry quit.”

Asked to describe the demographics of his shop’s customers, Fordham says: “It’s like smoking, there’s hardly a demographic because it’s everybody-all races, walks of life.” And he’s clearly satisfied with the sociability of his new career. “I’ve definitely met a fascinating bunch of people since I started this,” he says, before telling an anecdote to illustrate the unlikely camaraderie that arises among those in the vape culture.

“I had one customer who was in here, a University of Baltimore law student,” Fordham recalls. “Then in came this artist who does drag once in a while, these MICA students, and there was a PhD candidate at Hopkins. They all came in about the same time, and everyone’s just really talking about vaping.”

“The UB student,” Fordham continues, “after everyone else left, he was like, ‘You know, I don’t think in any other social situation we would have had a conversation, even if we were in the same bar as each other, which is unlikely. But we’re all talking about this vape, and it’s completely different from the normal crowd I would have met. And these are all people who have started vaping and quit smoking, and almost every one of them is surprised, because they’ve all tried to quit before, and nothing ever worked. And when it works for them, they are very supportive of everybody else.'”

The most prevalent types of e-cigs, known as “cigalikes,” are sold at convenience stores and gas stations, with brand names like blu, NJoy, and Blaze, often in either disposable or rechargeable models. They cost about $5 to $10 each for disposables, or $20 to $70 for rechargeable kits, and offer fewer varieties of flavors, often packaged in cartridges rather than e-juice bottles for use in refillable cartomizers. So cigalikes are more expensive to use over time than the e-cigs sold at vape stores, which cater to those looking to customize their vaping experience with a variety of higher-powered technology and nearly limitless flavor options.

Despite the higher cost over time of disposables and fewer choices, some cigalike users have found them quite useful for quitting smoking. “I was a smoker for ten-plus years,” explains Adam Sahhar, captain of Urban Pirates, which runs playful excursions on the faux-pirate ship Fearless out of Fells Point. “Most days I would smoke a whole pack of cigarettes,” he continues, and “when I decided that I could no longer justify the cost, smell, and harm to my body anymore, I decided to try the blu disposable brand, to work my way off smoking. I stopped smoking cigarettes altogether within a week and have not lit up in over a month.” He adds that using blus “is cheaper and has saved me over $100 in one month.”

Sahhar’s experience with cigalikes may have once been more common than mine, involving cartomizers and a host of tasty flavors. But vape culture centered on what is purveyed online and at vape stores rather than cigalikes from convenience stores is a growing phenomenon. The Wells Fargo Securities team in late March estimated that roughly 60 percent of all e-cig sales is happening in this hard-to-track segment of the economy, and puts the number of vape stores in the U.S. at about 5,000.

In Maryland, the Legal Resource Center for Public Health Policy at the University of Maryland School of Law has tried to keep tabs on the growth of vape shops. Its deputy director, William Tilburg, says, “I don’t have a comprehensive list,” but “the list we have” amounts to “32 bricks-and-mortar shops around the state.”

City Paper‘s attempt to create a list based on new business filings at the Maryland Department of Assessments & Taxation (MDAT), where anyone starting a business goes to file incorporation or trade-name application papers, is also incomplete by necessity. But it indicates that the vape-shop explosion in the Free State is remarkably active-and that Tilburg’s crew has some catching up to do.

Joining the parade of newly forming Maryland vape businesses in March were the Vape Shop in Sykesville, the Vapor Kingdom in Glen Burnie, MD Vapor in Thurmont, Vaperista in Easton, the Vapor Vault in White Plains, Vapor Trails in Hagerstown, Vapeculture in Gaithersburg, Vape Puffin Stuff in Cheltenham, Vape Jungle in Owings Mills, and DC Vapor and Vapor VII in Germantown. In February, there was Gypsy Vape, Vape Exchange in Germantown, Vapor Worldwide in Bethesda, The Vapepad in Odenton, and Vapin Time in College Park. And in January came the Vaper’s Knoll in Pasadena, All Day Vapors in Reisterstown, Vapor-Tek in Elkridge, Vapestore USA in Essex, Vaper-Café Timonium, Vapor Gators in Stevensville, and Vaporrise USA in Hagerstown.

That’s 23 new vaping enterprises in Maryland since the beginning of the year, and is likely not the complete picture. In Baltimore City, for instance, sisters Margee Brooks and Monica Schubel opened Mystic Vape (mystic-vape.com) earlier this year on Falls Road in Hampden, becoming the city’s third vape shop. “These shops are popping up all over,” says Brooks, who was attracted to the prospect of opening one by Schubel, who quit smoking by using e-cigs. “I knew nothing about it before then,” Brooks continues, “but I came into this business saying, you know what, financially this is going to work. I believe in it.”

A fourth city vape shop, District Charm Vapory, is set to open on Washington Boulevard in Pigtown on April 11, according to an email from Rachel Alexander, who co-owns the business with Laura Greeley.

The pace appears to be picking up, since City Paper‘s MDAT business-filings search counted over 30 new vape businesses forming in Maryland in all of 2013. Last year’s new arrivals included the Vapor Hut in Oakland, the Vape Vine and Mean Street Vapor in Glen Burnie, Vape Bros in Ellicott City, the Vape Lounge in Bel Air, Vaping Apes in Forestville, Vape Social in Rockville, Great White Vape in Arnold, Vapor Jacks in Silver Spring, Vape Daddy in Damascus, and Vaporiot in Dundalk.

Clearly, Maryland’s vape scene is burgeoning as customers look for more choice and convenience. To Fordham, what he’s been seeing among his growing customer base is surprising: “It’s the closest thing to religious converts that I can think of.” He’s also surprised at his own transformation: “I never thought I’d be, like, turned into an advocate, you know, some kind of activist or something. I just didn’t see that coming.”

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“I never wanted to be an activist in my life, for anything. For anything. It never even crossed my mind,” says 43-year-old Ron Ward, an attorney who last year opened up The Vapers’ Edge, a vape shop in Parkville. “And then I started these things,” he says, holding up his e-cig, “and here’s the answer to a problem that I’ve been looking for my entire life. And within six months I was an activist, full on. It’s exciting, and being a vendor is very exciting. It’s like throwing the rope back over the fence for people, to help them find an alternative to smoking. And they’re thankful. I have people thank me during the course of the day.”

Ward is a board member of CASAA, the acronym for the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, and now finds himself calling and writing legislators weighing how to regulate e-cigs. He did so in Maryland, urging the state not to institute a proposed ban on e-cig sales while supporting a measure to prohibit sales to minors, and both bills ended up how he’d hoped they would.

As vaping grows more widespread and acceptable, Ward says, “there is power in numbers. We’re very enthused” as the vaping community grows more organized. “Vapers aren’t like smokers,” he says, observing that, “when the smoking ban went down” in 2007 in Maryland, “there weren’t hundreds of smokers descending upon Annapolis to fight against these bills. Vapers are very enthusiastic and want to get involved. So the more vapers we have on board, the more numbers we have, the more we can fight these bans.”

Carl Phillips, a public-health scientist and longtime proponent of tobacco harm reduction who serves as CASAA’s scientific director, believes proposed bans and heavy-handed regulation that may threaten to undermine the e-cig industry are being aided by an inherent irony resulting from an important federal appellate-court decision in 2011 that essentially bars e-cig manufacturers from making claims that their products can help people quit smoking.

“It would be enormously beneficial if they could just tell the truth,” Phillips says, “but instead they have to resort to messages about how it’s a cool alternative to smoking. They are stuck advertising this way, and then they are criticized for using these marketing tactics.”

Boston University’s Siegel agrees, saying that allowing e-cig makers to “make a therapeutic claim is the best thing they could do, since it would allow these companies to inform consumers that they are safer than cigarettes, which is the truth. Instead, companies go to other tactics-how sexy it is, how you can use these where you can’t smoke.”

Siegel points out that “many decisions in public health are made in the absence of complete data”-a real problem for e-cigs since “they just came on the market and there hasn’t been enough time for thorough study yet”-yet “no one is claiming they have short-term effects, the only question is long-term effects, and it takes a very long time to establish what they might be.” New drugs are approved by FDA and “put on the market without any understanding of their long-term effects all the time,” he adds, so such decisions “often have to be made with uncertainties.” The bottom line, he says, is, “we should be doing everything in our power to combat smoking, and e-cigarettes are helping many, many people do just that.”

Here in Baltimore, Bmore Vapes owner Cornelius Sylvester says he’s seen it all when it comes to the controversies over e-cigs. He’s been in the business since 2009, when he started out working for Max Cigs, an e-cig company based in Texas, where he was living at the time. “Now that it’s popular,” Sylvester says, “everyone’s putting out so much misinformation, it’s crazy. Is it 100 percent safe? Nope, but nothing is. But is it safer? Is it a safe alternative? Yeah, it is.”

Sylvester and industry activists like CASAA’s Phillips and Ward agree that the e-cig industry needs regulation, but they’re worried that whatever gets put in place could threaten e-cigs’ availability to consumers whose health could be improved and lives lengthened by using them to quit smoking.

“There should be guidelines,” Sylvester says, “a lot of just basic regulations for this industry that would make everything so much simpler and promote safety.” He worries that, instead, “it’s going to be, take out as many small people like me as possible, replace them with electronic cigarettes in small pen styles from the big tobacco companies, and let the big pharmaceutical companies, who have rival quit-smoking products, do the dirty work and come down and wipe us out. All that’ll be left are the big tobacco companies, who are going to work with the FDA to do it this way, and pretty much take over the market.”

Time will tell whether Sylvester’s pessimistic vision turns out to be prescient or misplaced. In the meantime, though, his business is booming. He says he now has nine employees and will need more as he expands to a new, bigger location in Baltimore County, and another in the planning stages at Arundel Mills Mall. He says some small e-cig companies’ growth is staggering.

“I know one guy, I sold him his first e-cigarette in Texas,” Sylvester says. “Since then, he opened up his own store, doing online sales, and he did over $50 million last year. I’m like, wow.”

“The people you’re talking to are already the converts,” says Pamela Clark, a public health research professor who is director of the new University of Maryland Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science (UMD-TCRS), when I mention the raft of stories vape connoisseurs have told me about people quitting smoking by switching to vaping.

“They’re the born-again breathers, and they’re passionate,” Clark continues. “They’re the ones who show up and testify at government hearings. They’re really part of the subculture, and they go to vape fests and are technologically oriented and disdainful of cigalikes,” which increasingly are produced by big tobacco companies. “The tobacco industry is not involved with” the vape stores’ products so far, which she calls “very funky looking,” and she believes that “many of [their customers] were never smokers.”

She worries, though, that the rise in vape culture “may re-normalize smoking” thanks to “advertising on television,” turning back the ebb tide that cigarette use has seen for decades until now, when “it’s down below 20 percent of the population,” while also reversing the decline in teen smoking. On the other hand, she says, putting the brakes on e-cigs’ growth presents an “ethical dilemma,” because “a lot of people will anecdotally quit with them,” presenting a “problem of denying these things from people who want to quit.”

Clark, who says she got her first grant to study e-cigs in 2011, is guiding UMD-TCRS as it embarks on major new e-cig research funded last year by the National Institutes of Health in collaboration with the FDA. Some of the defenders of vape culture cited this forthcoming study when, in March, the Economic Matters Committee of the Maryland House of Delegates held a hearing on House Bill 1291, which sought to ban vaping wherever smoking is already banned by law in Maryland.

Cheryl Zolnierek, who goes by the nickname “Vape Mom” as vice president of Maryland Vapers (mdvapers.org), a group that hosts social meet-ups and an online community of vapers and vendors, asked the committee to “please, wait until this study is released, see what they have to say,” before passing an indoor-vaping ban. Lobbyist Bruce Bereano, representing the Association of Tobacco and Candy Wholesalers in opposing the bill, urged the committee to “await objective, concrete scientific facts and evidence before acting” and pointed out that Prince George’s County, which had been considering passing an indoor-vaping ban last year, decided it would hold off until the Clark-led study produced results.

The bill’s sponsor, state Del. Aruna Miller (D-Montgomery County), told the committee to “err on the side of public safety” and allow the proposal to go forward to a floor vote, since it’s “like the wild, wild West out there” with “no FDA oversight.” She claimed that “many of these studies that have been conducted” are “not conclusive” as to the risks of vaping, which may be a “gateway product” leading nonsmokers to pick up cigarettes.

Joining Miller in support of the bill was Donald Shell, head of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Cancer and Chronic Disease Bureau, who said that reported e-cig “nicotine overdoses” in Maryland had increased from seven calls in 2012, two involving children, to 11 in 2013, nine of them kids. He added that “we are not clear what the potential risk is at this time” from vaping.

Del. Melvin Stukes (D-Baltimore City) signed on as a co-sponsor of Miller’s bill, and says in an interview with City Paper that “nobody knows what’s coming from these things,” adding, “I did hear there are some things involved with the vapors that are hazardous.” Another co-sponsor, Del. Dan Morhaim (D-Baltimore County), who is a physician, adds that he’s heard e-cigs “help people quit” smoking, but “that’s not proven,” adding, “it’s always good to err on the side of caution until the facts are clear.”

But at the committee hearing, vaping proponents argued that enough is already known to avoid banning the convenient use of this promising smoking-cessation technology. “Vaping is 99 percent less risky than smoking,” said CASAA’s Phillips. The suggestion that “a bystander would be harmed” by vaping is “misguided,” he said, since the toxicity of vaping “is far below the level to create any health concern,” and “that’s the exposure to the user herself.” People who switch from smoking to vaping, Phillips continued, “are reducing their health risk almost as much as if they’d quit cold turkey,” and if Maryland law was changed to “take away that convenience” of vaping indoors in public places-like bars, restaurants, and even vape shops-“more people will keep smoking and die from it.”

Also testifying against the bill was Bill Godshall, the founder of SmokeFree Pennsylvania and a CASAA advisor, who said the bill, if passed, would “protect cigarette markets” by creating disincentives for smokers to start vaping, a practice that he estimates has “replaced about one billion packs of cigarettes in the U.S. in the past five years,” while “last year, U.S. cigarette sales dropped by 4.6 percent as e-cigarette sales skyrocketed to replace them.” The more vaping goes mainstream, the more it “denormalizes cigarette smoking,” Godshall argued, adding that just as e-cigs have burgeoned, “teen smoking has declined to record lows.”

Godshall’s teen-smoking point was meant to counter widely cited data from the CDC, which he mentioned to the committee, finding that high-schoolers’ e-cig use rose from 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent from 2011 to 2012. When these findings were released, CDC director Tom Frieden surmised publicly that they raise the specter that e-cigs are a gateway to cigarette smoking. But the CDC also found that 9 out of 10 high-schoolers who reported vaping were already cigarette smokers and that teen smoking overall had declined-facts they released belatedly, and which suggest that many vaping high-schoolers may be dual users on the road to quitting cigarettes or have already fully switched to vaping.

Boston University’s Siegel found CDC’s behavior in releasing its data in successive bites highly suspect, writing on his blog, The Rest of the Story: Tobacco News Analysis and Commentary (tobaccoanalysis.blogspot.com), that “CDC officials certainly had plenty of opportunity to let the public know that there was no discernible increase in cigarette smoking among youth concomitant with the observed increase in e-cigarette use,” and the fact they reported the former only after the media rippled with news of the latter, suggests they’ve come to “a pre-determined conclusion that e-cigarettes are evil.”

In the end, the Economic Matters Committee voted 19 to 3 to stop Maryland’s proposed indoor-vaping ban in its tracks. Bereano, in an interview after the vote, says it’s likely the majority struck the bill down “because they are sensitive to business and cautious about government regulation of business and business products,” especially since, given the reliability of information currently available, “they couldn’t call vaping dangerous and harmful.” Stukes, though, says that while the proposal is “dead for now, it will be back next year.”

“I smoked 31 years,” says Rick Willard, a 47-year-old retired Baltimore City cop. “I was doing almost two packs a day. I would raid houses with a cigarette in my mouth. In Edmondson Village, my nickname was the Marlboro Man. I always had a cigarette. I would chase a bad guy down the street for a couple of blocks, and I’d have to stop and smoke a cigarette to kick-start my lungs.”

Willard is telling war stories of his days as a chronic smoker while sitting in the lounge area of Gypsy Vape, a shop he recently opened with his longtime friend and fellow former Baltimore cop Kevin Hoff. “I tried the patch, gum, Chantix, hypnosis-everything you could imagine to quit smoking,” Willard continues. He discovered e-cigs about five years ago, he says, and “quit smoking 100 percent on January 17 of 2013.” He says he’s cut the nicotine content of the e-juices he vapes to 6 mg/ml, sometimes as low as 3 mg/ml, and “I could probably go to zero,” but, “I have no intention of quitting.” But “once you switch all the way,” he continues, “after a couple of weeks, you’re going to see a difference in how you feel. I could barely walk up a flight of steps without getting winded before. Now, I can run five miles. I feel better all over, my whole body.”

Hoff, a longtime Goth and Renaissance Festival enthusiast, says, “I vape no nicotine. I have no wish to vape nicotine, and half the vapers out there don’t vape nicotine.” He was “a hookah smoker before I got into vaping,” he explains, but grew worried about “what they put in that charcoal” used in hookahs, and “how much of that is still getting through the water filter.” So he switched to vaping-and now he enjoys something that may be the only aspect of vape culture that is controversial among vapers themselves.

It’s called “cloud chasing,” and it involves exhaling mass quantities of thick vapor, enough to fill a room, much like a theatrical fog machine can. Those who build the e-cigs that can do it have to be hard-core geeks about the vaping technology. When I ask Hoff what he uses to chase clouds, he says this: “I’m running a 20-gauge, four-wrap wire on an IGO-W drip atomizer that subohms at about anywhere from .06 to .13.” This is how cloud chasers talk.

Ron Ward, the lawyer with the Parkville vape shop, tries to be tolerant about cloud chasers. “I’m libertarian by nature,” he explains, so, “I have no problem with it at all.” But he clearly does, based on what he says next: “If you do blow industrial size clouds of vapor in public, it’s going to ruin it for the rest of us. It’s going to be what they point to when they say these things should be banned indoors, because people are being disrespectful. It honestly creates such an immense amount of vapor that it could be offensive to a lot of people. It’s offensive to me, and I’m a vaper.”

Cloud chasing “started in the Phillipines,” Ward continues, “I’d say it’s been a year and a half, and it’s become very, very popular. Culturally, it seems to be mostly young people and hobbyists, people in their 20s who like to rebuild things and want to build something that makes the most vapor.”

Or people like 48-year-old Hoff, who says he wore a blue Mohawk for part of his six years on the police force, and the last thing most people would think when looking at him is “ex-cop.” But Willard, who looks every bit the ex-cop, echoes Ward’s concerns. While cloud chasers “do it everywhere” because “it’s fun and they enjoy it,” Willard says, “sometimes people aren’t responsible. If they really thought about the future of vaping, they wouldn’t sit in a Chuck-E-Cheese and subohm and blow a cloud, because the perception of that cloud, after years of indoctrination of what smoke is, people don’t understand it. And then they get fearful for their kids.”

But the geek factor involved in cloud chasing is indicative of a larger theme in hardcore vape culture, one in which, unlike with people trying to quit smoking, nicotine isn’t really part of the picture.

“Probably 50 percent of our customers don’t even do nicotine,” Hoff explains. “A lot are people who were into hookahs, without nicotine, so we supply non-nicotine e-juice to a lot of people who just enjoy vaping, who just have a pastime where they sit around and socialize. Now, a lot of young people are going to vape shops the way, when I was younger, we used to bar-hop. It’s kind of like a hobby to a lot of people, and they go around and collect things, build things, look at things, collect the different mods, the different drippers”-component parts of high-end e-cigs that people build themselves, so they can control the ohms and voltage of the batteries and the amount of e-juice delivered.

“It’s a whole different subculture that is literally springing up overnight,” Hoff says. “I can’t remember a subculture that sprang up this quickly.”

But “our primary customers,” Hoff adds, “are people who want to quit smoking. They’ve tried everything. They come here, and we sell them just the basic kit to get started on their journey. And it works. They’re surprised that they’re not doing cigarettes anymore, and the thought of smoking turns their stomach.”

Hoff’s wife, Jennifer Langenfelder, pipes in: “One thing I don’t miss is smelling like a cigarette.” She was a pack-a-day smoker until the shop opened, three weeks earlier, and hasn’t had one since. “It’s gotten to the point where I can smell it on somebody, and it just makes me want to gag. You get to the point where it just smells and tastes disgusting.”

“That’s how we can tell if our customers are being honest or not about quitting,” Hoff concludes. “You don’t get that smell, you know it’s working.”

For now, I still carry that smell-though less so, given that I’m smoking only three or four cigarettes a day. I look forward to the day I can go to the Vapory or Gypsy Vape or Bmore Vapes, and they’ll notice I don’t reek.