Right to challenge perils to environment widened

September 22, 1992|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff Writer

Maryland's highest court has expanded citizens' ability to challenge what they believe to be environmental hazards but has restricted which citizens can make those challenges.

The Court of Appeals ruled last week that the Maryland Waste Coalition cannot appeal the 1989 permit issued to a Hawkins Point Road incinerator to burn medical waste because the coalition does not own property nearby.

But the court acknowledged for the first time that citizens have a right to appeal the state permit, environmental activists said yesterday.

"The courts giveth and taketh away," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, state director of Clean Water Action, a non-profit environmental advocacy group.

On Sept. 8, 1989, the Maryland Department of the Environment awarded Medical Waste Associates Partnership a permit to burn 85 tons of medical waste a day at a facility on the Anne Arundel County-Baltimore line.

The Maryland Waste Coalition, an alliance of southern Baltimore County and northern Anne Arundel County residents, asked the courts to overturn the permit, arguing that the region already dTC violates pollution standards.

The lower courts ruled that the state permit could not be appealed, but the Court of Appeals, in a decision released Sept. 16, said citizens may challenge permits to open or expand landfills and incinerators if they have a "property interest" nearby and can show that they will be harmed in ways the general public would not be.

Although many of the coalition's members own homes in northern Anne Arundel County and southern Baltimore County, the coalition itself does not and therefore lost the appeal.

"In terms of the whole environmental movement, this is a step forward," said G. Macy Nelson, a lawyer representing the Maryland Waste Coalition. "But in [the coalition's] case, it's clearly not."

More than 100 civic groups throughout the state have been waiting for the decision before challenging landfills, rubble dumps and incinerators proposed in their own neighborhoods, environmentalists said.

Ms. Schmidt-Perkins said the decision points out clear flaws in state law that environmental activists will target when the General Assembly meets this winter. She said the law should be expanded to allow environmental groups to mount legal challenges.

The permits, which allow incinerators, for example, to release pollutants into the air, affect a much wider region than the court decision acknowledges, she said.

Environmental groups also have more money to mount legal challenges than individual neighbors do, she said.

"Usually, Maryland is in the forefront" of environmental regulation, Ms. Schmidt-Perkins said. "But here, on enforcement and citizens' rights, we're backpedaling."

The Court of Appeals ruling also left open the possibility of a fresh challenge to the Hawkins Point Road incinerator, which has been operating for nearly 18 months, through the 14-year-old Maryland Environmental Standing Act, Mr. Nelson said. That act has never been tested in court, he said.

Mary Rosso, president of the Maryland Waste Coalition, said her group will consider a new appeal, even though it still owes more than $26,000 in legal fees and court costs related to the lost appeal.

"The community hasn't changed the way they feel about that incinerator -- the way it was railroaded through," said Delores Barnes, president of Concerned Citizens for a Better Brooklyn. "The system is still stacked against the citizens."

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