The top state official charged with protecting the environment withstood a barrage of criticism from Harford residents and officials over the way his agency has handled the permit-granting process and regulation of rubble fills and other environmental issues in the county.
Harford's seven County Council members and more than 20 other people fired questions and comments at Robert Perciasepe, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, for more than three hours at a special public hearing Tuesday night at Bel Air High School.
Much of the criticism aimed at MDE focused on its handling of permit reviews and enforcement of operating requirements at three rubble fills. Spencer Sand & Gravel Inc. in Abingdon, which is now closed; the Oak Avenue rubble fill in Joppa operated by Pappy's Inc.; and a proposed rubble fill that Maryland Reclamation Associates Inc. wants to put on Gravel Hill Road near Havre de Grace.
For example, Abingdon residents are upset over news earlier this year that suspected carcinogens were found in monitoring wells at the Spencer site. And a private citizen's investigation revealed that the company was guilty of many violations in the last decade that were inadequately policed by MDE.
Council members closely questioned Mr. Perciasepe and sought assurances that MDE made its decisions "without the influence of political pressure," as Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson explained it.
Councilman Barry T. Glassman, R-District D, wanted to know if the agency's philosophy is "protecting citizens and rebutting evidence presented by a permit applicant?"
"From site to site, the communities have had to crawl, beg and borrow to pay for experts to answer their questions," said Mr. Glassman. "They're the ones that have to dig up the information. Those taxpayers pay for your department. I don't think they should have to do that."
In an effort to reassure the council and residents that he was sincere in wanting to improve his agency's track record and image in the county, he proposed creating a citizens' advisory council and a separate work group comprised of county officials and citizens that would focus specifically on county issues.
Those proposals, however, didn't relieve the hostility.
"Well, we are engaged in yet another public hearing," said the Rev. Violet Tann of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, which has joined other members of its Gravel Hill community in opposing a proposed rubble fill for more than two years. "How many times must we lift up our voices to be heard?"
Others, like Ron Bishop of Havre de Grace, wanted to know more about agency procedures. Why, he wanted to know, would MDE allow companies applying for private rubble fill permits to provide their own data, instead of having MDE conduct its own independent evaluation of the applicant's proposal?
"If I had invested that much money [as companies do] I would want the data to come out on my behalf," said Mr. Bishop. "MDE only investigates once a violation happens, so we're still looking for protection. Send an inspector to do your own evaluation and send the information to the council. That will head off a lot of the problems we're having."
Patricia Nimmerrichter, an Upper Marlboro lawyer who represents a group of citizens opposing Maryland Reclamation's proposed rubble fill, reminded Mr. Perciasepe of another public hearing last fall at which the community's words were unheard.
At that hearing, residents presented documents and hired scientific experts to testify in rebuttal of information included on Maryland Reclamation's rubble fill permit application.
"The hearing officer was so touched by the public participation that he said it reminded him of an old New England town meeting. But what happened?" she asked rhetorically. "The agency issued a permit."
Maryland Reclamation did receive a permit from MDE during the summer, but the company is prohibited from starting work at the rubble fill until litigation over whether the fill site meets Harford zoning standards is settled.
Mr. Perciasepe did not try to defend his agency's past performance, though he noted that some of the problems occurred before his tenure.