A bridge toward less pollution Chemical plant officials, waterfront neighbors to discuss 'partnership'

July 31, 1996|By Joe Mathews and Timothy B. Wheeler | Joe Mathews and Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

With the federal government playing matchmaker, community activists and chemical plant executives in industrialized South Baltimore and northern Anne Arundel County plan to gather tonight for an uneasy summit on how to improve the local environment.

The meeting at St. Athanasius Church at Church and Prudence streets is the kickoff for the "Community Partnership for Environmental Protection," a year-old effort by the Environmental Protection Agency to forge an atmosphere of trust and cooperation in the gritty old waterfront neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Cherry Hill, Curtis Bay, Fairfield, Hawkins Point and Wagner's Point.

"It's exciting," said Doris McGuigan, a member of the Ministerial Alliance in Brooklyn. "This is the first time that community groups, government and business have all gotten together to try to improve the environment in this area."

Residents have sparred in the past with industry executives and government officials over pollution and waste from the chemical plants clustered in southern Baltimore, but EPA officials hope to achieve consensus about how to improve the area's quality of life.

"We're not there to tell people what to do but to give them the tools they need so they can understand their environment and do something about it," said Hank Topper, the project's manager and community liaison for EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics.

The partnership effort is among several fledgling attempts by EPA to reinvent itself as a helper and peacemaker, replacing its old image as a remote, ruthless regulator.

Baltimore also is the stage for another Clinton administration EPA initiative, Project XL, which seeks to encourage local businesses to reduce pollution by easing rules.

"Our theory is that if people sit down together and work at this, they can reach consensus on a practical solution to most issues," explained Topper, a former assistant professor of political science at Goucher College.

Topper and EPA employees have been making the rounds since last summer of state and city government agencies, neighborhood meetings and businesses large and small. Though embraced by community activists, the federal officials' reception was decidedly chillier inside the chemical plant gates.

"We listened with some trepidation, I have to confess," said Gene Reynolds, chairman of the Chemical Industry Council of Maryland and responsible care coordinator for FMC Corp.

Chemical plants in South Baltimore have voluntarily reduced emissions of toxic pollutants by about 80 percent since the late 1980s, he said, and have tried to improve communications with residents.

"At first they were skeptical," Topper acknowledged. "EPA has a history of enforcement. This is a whole new way of doing business."

Community activists, who agree that relations with industry have improved, have nevertheless sought to strengthen their leverage by recruiting about 40 neighborhood businesses.

"I want to see if we can home in on something and do something, not just talk, whether it's air quality or fish consumption," said Mary Rosso, head of the Maryland Waste Coalition, an environmental group based in Glen Burnie.

Some small-business owners share the activists' concerns.

"If we can beautify Brooklyn, maybe we can attract more small businesses and fill up these vacant buildings," said Earl Murphy, who with his wife, Michelle, owns Norma Sue Creations, a Brooklyn florist.

But some industry executives remain doubtful.

Brian Martin, plant manager for Grace Davison in Curtis Bay, said the chemical company is "taking a wait-and-see approach." He said he met three times with Topper. He joked that the EPA official told "Big Lie No. 3," referring to the line that goes: We're from Washington and we're here to help.

"But we couldn't quite tell Big Lie No. 4: 'We believe you,' " he said.

Martin said he is concerned because the partnership seems to lack focus.

"It's not clear how effective this is going to be," he said.

Pub Date: 7/31/96

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