James A. Heward relives his days as a volunteer firefighter by listening to his police scanner. A year and a half ago, it launched him onthe greatest adventure of his life.
It began 18 months ago when the 29-year-old Pasadena native idly tagged along on a fire call near his Curtis Bay home; it ended June 26 when a Circuit Court judge convicted the owner of a chemical drum recycling firm of dumping barrels of toxic waste along the Anne Arundel County-Baltimore City border.
Last week, Delegate Brian McHale, D-Baltimore City, honored Heward, one of the state's chief witnesses.
"We're always encouraging people to get involved," McHale said.
"This is a case where Jim went way beyond what anybody expected, maybe even to the extent of placing himself in jeopardy."
When Heward's police scanner crackled oneday early in 1990, dispatching fire crews to an industrial plant just blocks from his Curtis Bay home, he trailed along.
The scanner led him to Drumco Inc., a firm that cleaned and recycled chemical containers, at Arundel Boulevard and Aspen Street. Inside the gate, he saw drums everywhere, "lying every which way you can imagine."
Curtis Bay residents, Heward later learned from his next-door neighbor, have known about Drumco and feared the worst for years.
"But we couldn't get anyone up there to clean it up," said Rita Lampke, Heward's neighbor and vice president of the Community of Curtis Bay Association.
"If it hadn't been for Jimmy, I don't think they would be cleaning it up yet."
Lampke said Heward had been active since he moved into the neighborhood several months earlier, reporting abandoned cars and cleaning up litter.
Knowing that he had just completed a firefighter's class in hazardous materials, she encouraged him to take acloser look at Drumco.
So Heward went back, found the gate open and walked in.
"I expected to find a bunch of empty drums, nothing full," Heward recalls.
But he noticed large spots around several canisters. When he rocked several drums and heard sloshing, he realized something was amiss.
Heward said state environmental officials reacted skeptically to his report, so he began regular surveillance ofDrumco's operation, watching from a nearby hill. Occasionally, he ventured back and snapped Polaroid pictures.
When he read the label marking one drum, "I knew it was extreme stuff," Heward recalled. "I said, 'Whoa,' and backed out of there. I knew if you got too close, it could drop you."
His snapshots of toxic chemicals leaking from drums stored inside a trailer turned the trick.
In September 1990, state environmental authorities raided Drumco and found 44 leaking barrels.
As they explored the yard, they found more barrels of potentially hazardous liquids and called the U.S. Environmental ProtectionAgency for help.
EPA officials believe they have found 4,000 barrels of hazardous material, said EPA spokesman Jeremy Heep.
Superfund crews, which began cleaning up the 14-acre site July 1, have found18,000 barrels. Heep said another 6,000 may be buried in the brush.
Heep said the cleanup will continue for two or three months because of the "sheer number of drums."
The owner, George Phillips Garrett III, was sentenced June 26 to 90 days in jail, 200 hours of community service and a $50,000 fine.
Heward said he saw chemical spillsas a firefighter with the Powhatten Beach Volunteer Fire Company.
"I had been to tractor-trailer spills and all, but to investigate something like Drumco is a whole different ballgame," he said.
"I didn't realize the chemicals were that close to our backyards."