Landfill dispute preceded dismissal Public works director blames fired official for runoff pond woes

November 25, 1995|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Joan Jacobson contributed to this article.

Public Works Director George G. Balog's recent abrupt firing of a department head came during a dispute in which the man repeatedly warned Mr. Balog that shoddy repair work on a runoff pond at the Quarantine Road Sanitary Landfill could contaminate ground waste.

Kenneth J. Strong, who was dismissed Nov. 10 as head of the Bureau of Solid Waste, said a city contractor for the landfill's runoff pond did not seal the pond correctly and that it would have created a public risk. Consequently, Mr. Strong refused to put the pond into service in August.

Mr. Balog blamed Mr. Strong for the landfill's problems, saying that because Mr. Strong did not fill the pond, it was cracked by summer heat and rains.

State officials say the landfill, which is near Hawkins Point on the southern edge of the city, still has not been properly repaired and that it should have been in operation months ago.

The controversy about the landfill pond has touched off a state investigation and a City Council review.

Mr. Strong was popular with community organizations and environmentalists. Many of them are upset at his dismissal.

In an Oct. 24 internal memo about the problems that have dogged the landfill for months, Mr. Balog wrote to Mr. Strong, "You obviously do not respect my decision, and I caution you that your actions could be considered insubordination."

In a response the same day, Mr. Strong wrote, "You ordered me to stop interfering with the landfill. I am not and cannot be a disinterested party."

Mr. Balog said Mr. Strong's stance had nothing to do with his sudden removal.

"I am not going to fire somebody over that. He was just disagreeing with me. He was not" insubordinate, Mr. Balog said in an interview this week.

But a series of dueling internal memos dating back to August show that Mr. Balog was upset that Mr. Strong was challenging his authority about the landfill:

* Mr. Strong accused public works officials of ignoring findings of department engineers and witnesses about pond deficiencies.

* Mr. Strong, with the backing of Bureau of Solid Waste engineers, charged in memos to Mr. Balog and other city officials that the contaminated runoff was seeping through the cracks after repair work was completed. He also said some work required of the contractor had not been done.

* Forty-eight hours after the pond was deemed safe to use, two workers said that they had seen holes on the landfill pond floor and liquid seeping through. But memos detailing what the workers noted were written Nov. 3, months after the reported incidents.

* In several memos, contractor L. F. Mahoney is accused of improperly replacing the protective clay liner underneath the pond with asphalt, which is not designed to stop the leaking of contaminated liquids.

Mr. Strong refused to comment for this article. Mr. Balog said the allegations by Mr. Strong and Bureau of Solid Waste engineers are the writings of unqualified critics.

"There is no legal advice saying that they were correct," Mr. Balog said. "No expert advice. My role was to determine who was responsible. No doubt in my mind that the contractor was not liable."

Mr. Balog said his decision to put the blame on Mr. Strong and not on shoddy contract work is based on findings of hired consultants and has the state's approval.

"My judgment is based on conclusions reached by the State of Maryland, several consultants who are experts in the field ," Mr. Balog wrote Mr. Strong in an Oct. 24 memo. "Your assessment is based on advice given to you by two engineers on your staff. Your recommendations are therefore outweighed."

But Edward M. Dexter, chief of the Field Operations and Compliance Division of the state Department of the Environment, said he gave his approval of the pond over the phone only because public works officials asserted that the pond was safe. He did not inspect the pond in person.

The dispute surfaced the week of Aug. 21, when L. F. Mahoney completed repairs on the pond, which is designed to catch the landfill's contaminated liquid runoff, or leachate, and prevent it from seeping into ground water.

Mr. Balog said Mr. Strong waited too long to document the alleged problems at the pond. He said he had not heard about them until October.

A memo dated Aug. 31 from Bureau of Solid Waste engineers chronicling damage to the pond soon after it was approved is at the center of the matter.

Mr. Balog said the Aug. 31 memo was received in October. But on the memo obtained by The Sun, there is a handwritten note stating that it was received by a secretary at 2:30 p.m. Aug. 31. The memo was sent to Robert Guston, head of the Office of Permits, who approved the pond as safe.

"Several openings were found in the pond's slopes, and grass, growing out of sealed cracks was observed. Because of these observations, we are reluctant to begin filling the pond," wrote Jeanne Robinson, acting chief of Bureau of Solid Waste engineering.

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