South Baltimore's 11 chemical manufacturers had just announced major reductions in their emissions of toxic and cancer-causing chemicals --reductions for which Mary Rosso had fought for years.
Rosso, president of the Maryland Waste Coalition, a Glen Burnie-based environmental watchdog, listened patiently from her seat at St. Athanasius Church in Brooklyn as spokesmen for the Chemical Industry Council of Maryland unveiled the new findings for community leaders.
The Silver Sands resident has sniped at the chemical companies for nearly a decade to slash emissions of hydrochloric acid and other hazardous chemicals into the air, ground and water.
So, when the chemical companies unexpectedly announced a 74 percent reduction in toxics released into the environment since 1987, Rosso viewed the revelation with skepticism.
Patient no more, she rose from her chair.
"I don't see any specifics here," Rosso said, referring to the attractive set of bar graphs issued by the manufacturers to illustrate their reductions. "What chemicals are we talking about?"
For the next few minutes, Rosso rattled off questions challenging the chemical companies' claims. Are these reductions in the chemicals listed as hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency? Do these "voluntary" cuts include reductions ordered by the state Department of the Environment under new air toxic regulations?
Then Rosso sat down. Though she didn't have any specific information to refute the chemical companies' claims, the Nov. 14 incident is typical of the way Rosso has dogged industry since the Maryland Waste Coalition was organized in 1981.
Even though those "are the kinds of reductions Mary has been pushing for years," said Martin Walsh, secretary of the state Department of the Environment, "she's not going to sit back and applaud. She's going to make sure we're not falling asleep."
Walsh said Rosso is partially responsible for the state's air toxic regulations, adopted in 1988 and tightened last summer to require industries to lower their air emissions. But, he said, Rosso's agenda and accomplishments are more far-reaching.
"She's not into the glitzy stuff," Walsh said. "She's right into the tough subjects -- landfills, toxic waste, effluent -- subjects most of your classic environmentalists won't even touch."
In the last decade, she has had a hand in stopping the storage of hazardous PCB oils in Curtis Bay, closing American Recovery Corporation's Curtis Bay plant for illegally storing and dumping toxic wastes, and blocking the expansion of Browing-Ferris Industries' Solley Road hazardous waste landfill. She also has battled proposals to build asphalt plants and coal piers on North County's creeks and medical waste incinerators in Hawkins Point.
Recently, she has become more involved with electing conservation-minded lawmakers, promoting recycling, reducing pollutants from waste water treatment plants and preserving open spaces.
Although generally respected by other environmentalists, some county activists complain Rosso has become too political and has lost touch with her grass-roots origins. They charge she frequently compromises her principles in making hasty deals with developers and industry.
Some community leaders also are critical, acknowledging that she has done little to settle a running feud between her and former close friend Carol Vitek that has polarized much of North County -- and led to the demise earlier this year of the UCCA, once one of the county's most effective civic groups.
"The demise of the United Council is eloquent testimony of Mary Rosso's ability to work with other people," said Severn River Association President Stuart Morris.
When Rosso appeared last month on behalf of a bevy of environmental groups endorsing incumbent Democrat Philip C. Jimeno in the District 31 Senate race, her critics called a press conference of their own to denounce her and the endorsement process.
"We question who the Maryland Waste Coalition is," said Darlene Schepleng, a Rock Creek activist. "We think it's Mary Rosso and a very small group of people . . . and we're tired of hearing that they represent thousands of people."
Rosso has insinuated herself into the political system as a grass-roots representative of the community, "but tell me, how often does the Maryland Waste Coalition meet?" asked Vitek.
Rosso acknowledges that she sets policy for the coalition, whose nine-member board of directors meets once a year. She scoffs at charges the coalition is simply her and a couple friends, saying it has membership statewide.
"I set the policy, and we're very flexible," Rosso said. "We don't claim to represent every member of every group, but we do represent the group."
Rosso's critics, however, remain unconvinced.
Such elected officials as Ahern, recently defeated for re-election, and Jimeno have become insulated from their communities because they listen too much to Rosso and her friends, they charge.