Fly Ash Furor

March 30, 1994

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. has been a good neighbor in northern Anne Arundel County. The county Department of Planning and Code Enforcement says of all the long-term grading projects it regulates, BGE's Brandon Woods ash fill on Marley Neck has done a better job of complying than any other. Not surprisingly then, the utility questions the need for pending legislation that would limit how it uses fly ash -- a non-toxic waste byproduct from Brandon Shores' and Wagner Point's coal-fired generators -- to fill and grade the Brandon Woods site, which it intends to turn into an industrial park.

But the legislation has merit, notwithstanding BGE's good record and the somewhat exaggerated fears of local residents and environmental groups. The most worthy provision of the bill, sponsored by Councilman Carl G. "Dutch" Holland, R-Pasadena, the reclassification of ash fills as special zoning exceptions. That means public hearings would have to be held before the county issued permits.

Why are hearings necessary if fly ash is so benign that the state uses it in road beds? Because an ash fill, however well run, still has the potential to impinge on residents' quality of life. People should have the chance to register concerns before such projects are done deals; as it is, the only avenue of complaint -- an appeal of grading permits -- comes after the fact. To its credit, the utility last fall backed down on its own when neighbors objected to its proposal to pile ash in mounds. But residents shouldn't have to be at the mercy of such a huge, powerful neighbor. Legislating public hearings on such operations is fair and consistent with what is required for similar operations such as rubble landfills.

Some of the other restrictions in the bill -- sound and sight limitations, increased buffers -- are also patterned after rubble landfill laws. There ought to be room for compromise here, so neighbors' quality of life is protected without imposing hardship on the utility, which says the limitations would cut by half Brandon Woods' remaining seven years of life. If BGE cannot take care of its own ash, the options basically consist of putting the ash in precious county landfill space or trucking it somewhere else, at cost to the consumer.

Ash fills should be reasonably regulated; they cannot be legislated out of existence, at least not until technology takes another leap forward.

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