B&D denies role in water contamination

August 03, 1994|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,Sun Staff Writer

At the dairy farm next door, some of Stuart Leister's cows have mysteriously fallen ill. Just down Hanover Pike, workers at Jos. A. Bank Clothiers have been told not to drink the tap water. And behind Jos. Bank, on property his family has owned since 1928, 33-year-old Derrick Garland says the fish that once swam in his stream have disappeared.

"There's no fish in the stream anymore except crawfish," says Mr. Garland, who works for an air conditioning and refrigeration concern. "The company just keeps trying to sweep all of this under the rug."

Neighbors within a mile of Black & Decker (U.S.) Inc. in Hampstead have little more than anecdotal evidence that the company is responsible for the appearance of the possible carcinogen trichloroethylene and other chemicals in nearby wells. The Fortune 500 company acknowledges that the contaminants are in the water under its property, but denies that they have spread.

Thomas Lynch III, a Frederick attorney representing Black & Decker, says the company has been honest about the nature of the contamination and plans to clean it up.

"We've participated in the public information process," he says. "We've responded the best we can. I don't know what basis the public would have to believe that Black & Decker has been anything less than honest and open."

Residents such as Mr. Garland and Mr. Leister reply that the company has responded slowly, if at all, to phone requests for explanations of the appearance of contaminants in areas outside the plant.

Company officials also declined to meet with four families whose wells have tested positive for trichloroethylene, according to Murray M. "Mike" Tarlton, a state employee who is president of a neighborhood association.

'A catastrophe'

"We love this land, it's good land and no one should be able to do this to it," says Nelle Haugh, 85, who tends cattle on her property in the 4000 block of Doss Garland Road. "We think this contamination could produce a catastrophe around here."

Records from the state Department of Environment show Black & Decker has consistently tried to avoid public scrutiny.

Few Black & Decker neighbors know, for example, that they live near a facility that federal officials of the Environmental Protection Agency believe to be one of the worst toxic waste sites in the country.

Attorneys for the company have lobbied the government since 1991 to prevent the Hampstead site from being placed on the National Priorities List -- the 150 locations most in need of cleanup -- despite EPA tests showing an unusually high potential for environmental damage and health threats.

"We submit that EPA's plans to perform an . . . evaluation of the facility for inclusion on the [National Priorities List] is not a prudent use of resources," Mr. Lynch wrote in a February 1991 letter to the EPA.

Nevertheless, environmental officials went ahead with testing, and the Hampstead site was slated for the National Priorities List. But the company will be able to avoid landing on the list, EPA officials say, because it has moved to join a pilot deferral program that turns over responsibility for supervising the cleanup to the state of Maryland.

Superfund money

Under the deferral program, the state department of environment receives money from Superfund, a 14-year-old federal trust funded by fees on petroleum, smoke stacks and metal refinement.

One EPA official, speaking on condition of anonymity, worries that leaving cleanup supervision to states allows too many environmental decisions to "be made at the political level."

Black & Decker also has moved to block public review of its request for a permit allowing the company to discharge water into nearby Deep Run Creek, records show.

It unsuccessfully opposed a state decision to hold a public hearing -- set for 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Hampstead Town Hall -- on its request for the permit. In a May 16 letter to Assistant Attorney General Kathy M. Kinsey, lawyers for Black & Decker argued that a hearing was not required because the company had a previous discharge permit and was just seeking a renewal.

"Could you please let us know what is the rationale for the department [of environment's] position that any opportunity for a public informational meeting is required for this permit renewal?" Mr. Lynch and another attorney representing the company, Lydia B. Duff, wrote.

"We certainly have no interest in interfering with such an opportunity if it is required, but our client . . . is concerned with the cost and effort associated with such a process."

The records also show that even as Black & Decker publicly denied charges that it was responsible for contamination in the area, Mr. Lynch wrote the state in September 1990 to express his concern about two town wells in Robert's Field, 200 yards from the company's facility.

Black & Decker's attorney was concerned that ground water from Black & Decker could be getting into wells 22 and 23, which have been shut down as a precaution, according to town officials.

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