Neighbors contest permit for water use given B&D

July 20, 1994|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,Sun Staff Writer

From their home a hundred yards up the gentle slope of Hampshire Road in Hampstead, Herbert and Dorothy Hewlett figure they hold the high ground on their neighbor and adversary, the Black & Decker Corp. distribution center on Route 30.

But that may be their only advantage in their growing legal battle with the company. It's not easy fighting a multibillion-dollar toolmaker on the salary of a paging company employee and a Baltimore police officer, especially when neither town nor county will back you up.

"Yeah, money talks, and they've got money and we don't," says Mrs. Hewlett. "But we're not backing down."

The Hewletts are contesting a permit the state granted Black & Decker in November to pump up to 432,000 gallons of water per day -- more than is used daily by all of the town's other residences and businesses combined.

A hearing scheduled next month before state Administrative Judge Joan C. Ross is to decide the matter.

The couple claims the company, which says it needs the water to clean up contaminants in the ground under the distribution center, has failed to give assurances in case the well that supplies the Hewlett home goes dry.

And they also worry that the cleanup could contaminate the water they and their daughter drink.

"When you flush contaminants out with water," says Mrs. Hewlett, "you're just spreading it out further."

Most of the opposition to the Black & Decker plan seems to have dried up. Initially, water experts from Carroll County and the town of Hampstead criticized the company's plan, based on its potential to create water shortages in an area that, even without the extra pumping, is under a ban on outdoor water use.

But local officials have drafted an agreement that would allow the pumping in exchange for Black & Decker's commitment to fund water monitoring and to attend periodic meetings on the cleanup, according to both Hampstead and B&D representatives. Even though the town and county are in the process of signing, some local officials seem less than enthusiastic.

"The council, the mayor, all of us are as concerned as the residents in the town because of the enormous amount of water Black & Decker plans to pump from the ground," said Councilman Arthur H. Moler. "But the powers-that-be, the state, have said this is what needs to be done to do away with the contamination."

Black & Decker officials believe the contamination on their land was caused by leaking chemical storage tanks several years ago. The problem was identified during unrelated testing in 1985, after which state environmental officials pushed the company for a cleanup, said Black & Decker's vice president for environmental affairs, Linda Biagioni.

While offering few specifics about her company's plans for the cleanup, Ms. Biagioni said the town water will not be at risk of either contamination or shortage. She says the pumping will create a "hydraulic barrier" around the B&D property that will permit the "containment" of any chemicals in the ground.

But state documents obtained by residents and provided to The Sun suggest that trichloroethylene, a possible carcinogen also PTC called TCE, had already spread from the Black & Decker property to wells on land owned by local dairy farmer Stuart Leister as early as 1987. Mr. Leister says he has hired an attorney and is considering suing the company.

Black & Decker has made several attempts to reach a settlement with the Hewletts. In one letter to them, an attorney for the company promised to pay for the Hewletts to be connected to the Hampstead water supply if their well went dry because of the extra pumping. But proving the company was at fault, the Hewletts say, would require hiring a lawyer they cannot afford.

In the meantime, the couple complains that any attempt to take on the company comes up against state officials, five of whom will be testifying on behalf of Black & Decker at next month's hearing. These officials, including Maryland water rights chief Terrance W. Clark, say the threat of ground contaminants, which include TCEs, outweighs what they say is the small possibility of a water shortage.

Town officials acknowledge that they are less than content with the agreement, in particular the failure of Black & Decker to set a time limit for the cleanup. Mayor Clinton Becker has also said he would like to reuse water cleaned by B&D during the process. The company has not agreed, according to sources close to the negotiations, because it fears being held liable if the recycled water turned out to pose a health risk.

The Hewletts say they won't give up fighting.

Says Mrs. Hewlett, "We're just asking that if something goes wrong, they'll pay for it."

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