Pemco International Corporation’s 20 acre glass and porcelain plant was built in 1911 as part of a family business that eventually became a profitable multinational corporation that now has factories in Argentina, Belgium, Italy, and Spain. Its founder, Karl Turk, is considered the father of the porcelain enameling industry, inventing a process that converted porcelain to a wet form that could coat iron.
Their products were used in kitchen and other household appliances, barbecue grills, and floor tiles, and their roofing tiles gave Howard Johnson hotels their distinctive orange color. Their success allowed them to expand, adding a helipad in 1958 – they were the first company in Baltimore to have one! – and a $750,000 laboratory named after Turk in 1962.
Pollution was always a problem at the plant, however. The flagship Pemco plant in Baltimore had a long history of environmental violations, dumping frit (waste porcelain and glass) into a ravine on the property where heavy metals such as lead and arsenic then seeped into the soil and groundwater. Between 1978-1980 issues with fluoride emissions and lead pollution led to fines and orders by the city to clean the property.
The main production line was moved to Leesburg, Texas in 2000, but by this point stainless steel had overtaken porcelain in with consumers. When the plant was shuttered in 2006 to move south towards the company’s industrial customer base now in Mexico, Pemco’s CEO pledged that the site would be redeveloped rather than sitting unused.
Nevertheless, it sat abandoned until 2014, when developer MTB purchased the property for $3 million for a redevelopment project called Yard 56 that will include residential and retail space as well as a hotel. While the site currently is home to several restaurants and a fitness center and the factory itself has been torn down, the large ravine to the south of the property where so much waste was dumped remains and that section of the property looks as polluted as ever. Hopefully one day the remediation will be completed and Pemco’s toxic legacy in Baltimore will be no more.
Matthew Christopher MD Baltimore Jul 07, 2021 History