Md. failed to track toxic waste State audit cites record-keeping gaffes

September 17, 1991|By Liz Bowie John W. Frece of The Sun's Annapolis Bureau contributed to this article.

For three years Maryland environmental officials have not kept close track of whether hazardous waste shipped in and out of the state was being disposed of properly, according to state legislative auditors.

Since August 1988 about a million tons of waste has been trucked or sent by train in 120,000 shipments.

Federal law requires every company shipping hazardous waste to document what is sent and what arrives. The record-keeping law took effect because so much waste was being dumped illegally in the 1970s.

But auditors said state officials failed to check all the thousands of pieces of paper generated to ensure that the waste that left one site was the same waste that arrived at a disposal site. The Department of the Environment did check some of the documents, made random inspections of the trucks at police weigh stations and looked at annual reports from companies that generate hazardous waste, Environment Secretary Robert Perciasepe said.

Mr. Perciasepe said the department is computerizing the

information and will be able to tell whether abuses occurred in the past.

A critical audit of the department obtained by The Sun yesterday also documents persistent sloppy financial record-keeping and what auditors believe was lax enforcement that went on almost entirely during the watch of former Environment Secretary Martin W. Walsh.

Mr. Walsh left the department in December 1990 for the state Department of General Services and took the department's top financial administrator with him.

The auditors did not find the department had violated state laws.

The auditors gave the department a "very poor" rating for financial management. The audit found many instances when the department was not diligent in bookkeeping from June 13, 1988, to Jan. 9, 1991. At the very least the department could not ensure that money was being spent properly and at worst the auditors found small-scale abuses.

For instance:

* The department failed to follow state laws when they put out bids for contracts to purchase computer equipment. After the $2.1 million contract was awarded, officials decided to spend $600,000 more, a change that would not be permitted.

* The department wasted about $360,000 in state money that they could have recovered from the federal government but did not because of record-keeping back logs.

* State officials didn't collect $386,000 for hazardous waste cleanups.

* They paid 22 bills -- amounting to $63,000 -- twice.

* They paid for work done on waste water sewage treatment plants before it was done.

"I am taking this very seriously," Mr. Perciasepe said. "We don't have the kind of accounting system in the department that we should have."

He said he has given his staff six months to correct the problems and is setting up a list of projects that must be completed before then.

But Mr. Perciasepe believes the problems should be put in perspective. "There is nothing drastic. There is nothing illegal."

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