Kanasco: How long is too long? ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

October 06, 1992

Now that the Kanasco Ltd. pharmaceutical plant in Brooklyn Park faces criminal prosecution for a 1991 chemical spill, environmental officials should start thinking about what to do the next time Kanasco's permits come up for renewal.

The recent indictments, coupled with a $25,000 civil penalty proposed by the Maryland Department of the Environment, are not the end of the Kanasco saga. Though the company faces criminal fines up to $200,000, there is no guarantee it will have to pay that much, if convicted. Chances are, it will survive these penalties as it has survived others during its long history.

The MDE has ordered Kanasco, which makes synthetic penicillin, to clean up many times over the last 18 years and has levied tens of thousands of dollars in fines. But the firm has always found a way to avoid the severest penalty: denial of its operating permits. Every year, state inspectors acknowledge residents' complaints about foul vapors that make people sick and once sent 10 families to the hospital, but ultimately recommend permit approval. People don't understand how a company with such a record -- MDE files are full of violations for unauthorized dumping into public drains and sewers -- can be allowed to stay in business.

The MDE has stopped short of closing Kanasco because there is not enough political will to do so. Environmental bureaucrats know pro-business legislators would jump all over them if they start closing wayward industries. The MDE has developed a policy of coaxing industries into compliance through progressively stiffer fines because it is the easiest way.

It's not a bad policy. We can't afford to shut down businesses left and right. And companies that make mistakes ought to have the chance to correct them.

But how many chances are enough? How many strikes before you're out? The state has never answered these questions. Yet at some point it must. Kanasco is a small-fry as industrial polluters go, but it illustrates the problem. It has blundered repeatedly for almost 20 years, showing a lack of respect for environmental laws and the public health. Twenty years is long enough for a company to prove it can operate cleanly. The MDE should say "no" the next time Kanasco asks to have its permits renewed.

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