County seeks full penalties for polluter

May 19, 1991|By John A Morris | John A Morris,Staff writer

County Executive Robert R. Neall wants to throw the book at a Gambrills man who dumped raw sewage on the banks of a Severn River tributary.

Neall has authorized the county attorney to seek criminal and civil penalties against Willie F. Helsel, the owner of a 45-acre tract on Hog Farm Road, and his brother, Howard E. Helsel, a 1986 candidate for County Council from District 4.

On May 9, health inspectors discovered two lagoons containing raw sewage on the property. The lagoons are within 100 yards of the Jabez Branch, an environmentally sensitive tributary of the Severn River.

They also discovered seven 55-gallon drums, 20 cases of mercury-based batteries and piles of rusting fuel storage tanks. Two of the drums were open.

Officials worried the sewage could contaminate underground drinking water supplies and cause irreparable damage to the Jabez.

"If (Jabez) isn't dead already, that would ki1l it for all time," County Attorney Stephen Beard said. "There was evidence the lagoons had indeed washed into the branch at least once before."

Neither Helsel could be reached for comment Friday.

Neall authorized an emergency cleanup May 10. County fire trucks were used to dislodge the sludgy substances. A private contractor, the Annapolis-based Bio-Gro, suctioned the material into its tankers.

Workers found eight feet of sludge in each lagoon and removed more than 100,000 gallons of sewage, officials said.

The county has spent more than $20,000 cleaning up the site. Beard said. However, additional work, such as filling in the lagoons, continues.

Beard said the county will sue to recover the cleanup cost. It also could prosecute for illegal dumping, which carries a $1,000 fine and six-month prison term for each violation.

A state Department of the Environment spokesman said his agency has a search warrant to inspect the site tomorrow.

Officials are particularly concerned by the seven drums and the battery stockpile, he said.

A Severn River activist said she brought the property to the attention of the county's zoning enforcement division two years ago.

Friday, Lina Vlavianos, a member of the county's Severn River Commission, said she was frustrated that no action had been taken.

Vlavianos said she delivered a written complaint after observing large gasoline storage tanks, piled two and three high, on the property in June 1989.

If the county had moved against the storage tanks, they might have discovered the lagoons sooner, Vlavianos said.

"I've been after them to remove the storage tanks for two years, and they haven't moved off their you-know-whats," Vlavianos said. "I think some changes need to be made in the enforcement division. It epitomizes a 'dragging-your-feet' bureaucracy."

Cheryl Boudreau, an assistant county attorney, said a zoning investigation of the site was under way when the health department received a tip about the sewage lagoons.

Until a resident of the nearby Bretton Woods subdivision witnessed a tank truck entering the site and detected a foul odor, zoning inspectors did not have a sufficient case to enter the property, she said.

"You can only see a very limited amount from the road, but once you get on the property, your eyes are really opened." Boudreau said. "As soon as we saw what a great hazard it was, we responded and cleaned it up."

Evelyn Stein, a spokeswoman for the county Department of Health, said the site apparently was used to dump sewage from ailing septic tanks.

Stein Said septic tanks occasionally must be cleaned. The material is properly disposed of at a county Department of Utilities treatment plant.

"From time to time, there are people who select an area which is inappropriate," Stein said. "This gentleman was apparently allowing other folks to dispose of this material on his property."

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