Maryland's top environmental officer hears concerns of Harford residents MDE chief seeks citizens' help

September 27, 1992|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff Writer

Maryland's top environmental officer sought advice from Harford citizens last week on how to improve his agency's image in the county and its overall operation, acknowledging his department's reputation was tarnished.

"I'm not a mushroom. I know there have been a lot of public complaints about how we've handled things in Harford County, but I also think we've done some good things," said Robert Perciasepe, secretary of the Department of the Environment.

"We won't solve or salve all the wounds of the past, but the idea of coming . . . to meet with these citizens, even though there's lots of tension on some of these issues, is to try to find a way to work together."

At the meeting Monday night at the Susquehannock Environmental Center, Mr. Perciasepe announced he would like to create a permanent citizens' advisory group, and he brainstormed with the dozen or so hand-picked members of the ad hoc committee of residents he had assembled.

"Part of the problem is the system in which we operate," said Mr. Perciasepe.

"You, almost more than anyone else in the state, can help us define the problems in the system and solve them," he said.

Then Friday, two working days before a scheduled public hearing before the Harford County Council, Mr. Perciasepe called for creation of a second work group, one designed to improve communications between his agency and Harford County government officials.

"I wanted to get this proposal out so we can get on with a constructive, non-adversarial approach to solve these problems," said Mr. Perciasepe, explaining why he released updates on the five most controversial environmental issues in the county.

MDE has come under fire from Harford politicians and residents in the past few years over the agency's handling of permit reviews and enforcement of regulations relating to three rubble fill operations: the Spencer Sand & Gravel Inc. rubble fill in Abingdon; the Oak Avenue rubble fill operated by Pappy's Inc. in Joppa; and the rubble fill Maryland Reclamation Associates Inc. has proposed operating on Gravel Hill Road near Havre de Grace.

During the summer, Councilman Robert S. Wagner, R-District E, proposed, then withdrew, a resolution calling for MDE to be abolished. The public hearing with Mr. Perciasepe, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Bel Air High School, was scheduled as part of a compromise when Mr. Wagner withdrew the resolution.

Last Monday, at the meeting with county residents, Mr. Perciasepe asked for candor, and the residents took him at his word.

"Your hazardous and solid waste management group is incompetent," Winifred Jonas, an opponent of the proposed rubble and asbestos fill near Havre de Grace, told Mr. Perciasepe. "You could write a brownie recipe to meet the [written permit] requirements and it would pass."

Mrs. Jonas and the other residents urged MDE to give more weight to public comment, to allow public comment earlier in the permit review process and to beef up enforcement of permit requirements.

They also suggested establishing requirements for permit-holders to be sure they understood the business they were undertaking.

"If you were permitting my poodle, the implications aren't that great, but when the permitting process is sloppy for a rubble fill or a landfill, the impact can be very great," Jame Stinchcomb said.

Among the issues that raised public outcry was MDE's decision to grant Maryland Reclamation Associates Inc. a permit to operate an asbestos and rubble fill on Gravel Hill Road near Havre de Grace despite vocal community opposition. MRA, owned by Richard D. Schafer, can't use the permit, however, because the company is in court battling over whether the site meets local zoning standards which were revised while the state was reviewing the company's permit application.

MRA also is involved in a suit over whether the council's removal of the site from the county's solid waste management plan was legal.

"Whether you're a Gravel Hill resident who doesn't want a rubble fill anytime, anywhere or anyhow," said Jeffrey D. Wilson, council president, "I think the public has lost confidence in MDE's ability to make decisions on the best technical information rather than politics."

Spencer Sand & Gravel Inc.'s application to MDE to expand its rubble fill operation in Abingdon further stirred public controversy. Council members have complained MDE was slow to respond to their requests for information on the company's operating record and were appalled when research by a private citizen showed the company had been cited for numerous violations over the years.

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