State Environmental Crimefighter Defects To County Nelson To Aid Citizens Fighting Bureucracy

December 02, 1990|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff writer

One of the state Deparment of the Environment's top administrators has defected the county Deparment of Health, promising to step up county enforcement of anti-pollution laws.

Ronald Nelson, the former director of the state Hazardous and Solid Waste Administration, replaced Singh Dillon as director of the county's Division of Environmental Health on Nov. 8. Dillon, who joined the Health Department in 1956, announced his retirement last summer.

Nelson, who organized the state's first investigative unit for the environmental crimes, takes over an agency principally concerning the past with restaurant inspections, private septic systems and recreational water quality.

Last week, Nelson said he wants to reorder the agency's priorities and assume responsibility for local enforcement of state and federal anti-pollution laws as well.

He said he also wants his office to become a leading advocate for county residents with the state environmental bureaucracy he just left.

"Overall, the state's enforcement is pretty strong," said Nelson, who regulated landfills, medical wastes disposal, oil spills, underground storage tanks and the industrial water polluters for the state.

"When we started the environmental crimes unit in the early 1980's, that was almost unheard-of anywhere in the country. Now, people are actually in jail for environmental crimes. It's quite a deterrent."

But, Nelson added, state regulatory efforts focus on the handful of large industries, which are also the state's largest polluters.

He said he would like to begin enforcing anti-pollution laws against smaller industries, not seen as a priority by the state.

"They are required to comply already," Nelson said. "The regulations may just not be being applied."

Nelson has offered no specific programs yet. But, he said, the agency may expand into regulating industrial ground-water discharges, sewage sludge disposal, air emmissions and solid waste disposal.

How much the county becomes involved in those programs depends in part on the availability of state and federal grants, he said.

Whether or not money is available to expand the agency's enforcement role, Nelson said he wants to become an intermediary for residents with the state Department of the Environment and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

That function is particularly important in North County, where residents live in the shadows of South Baltimores's industrial smokestacks.

Nelson, who took over solid waste management for the state in 1980, has seen North County residents grow frustrated with the state's massive bureaucracy as they battle the chemical companies, medical waste incinerators and hazardous waste landfills located there.

"It's easier for (residents) to deal with us here than to deal with a 900-man bureaucracy in Balimore," said Nelson, who earns $62,500 with the county.

State regulators are more likely to listen to a health official than residents anyway, Nelson said. "A lost of valid points can be lost in the NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) syndrome," he said. "A local government can help most by bringing those points out clearly."

Lola Hand, a North County activist, said, "If he's going to do that, I'd say, 'Thank God. Welcome aboard.' I wish anybody well that's going to look into these pollution problems.

A Salisbury native, Nelson studied environmental health at Eastern Tennessee State in the early 1960's-before environmental health was fashionable.

Nelson, who worked summers as a teen-ager on charter boats in Ocean City, said he started out as a physical education major. But he followed his friends into the environmental health program.

Following graduation in 1966, Nelson joined the Wicomico County Department of Health. Four years later, he joined the state health department and moved to Anne Arundel.

He lives in Lake Shore with his wife, Hazel, and two children, Heather, 18, and Kyle, 14.

"Most people are probably more familiar with my daughter than they are me," said Nelson, director of the Lake Shore Athletic Association girls softball program. Heather was an All-County soccer player at Chesapeake High School last year.

Overall, Nelson said, he believes Anne Arundel's environment is in good shape. Waterfront development, not heavy industry, is the main threat, he said.

"There's been some development on the water that needs to be reassessed," he said.

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