Odenton case spurs study of landfill sites Statewide inquiry to focus on whether race affects choices

'There may be an issue'

Probe latest chapter in long fight against proposed rubble dump

October 22, 1997|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

A hole in the ground in Odenton has become the unlikely catalyst in a statewide inquiry into whether landfills are unfairly steered into minority neighborhoods.

A decade-long battle over whether Chesapeake Terrace, site of a former mining operation, should open as a collection site for construction and demolition debris in west Anne Arundel County has taken a new turn. State and federal environmental officials are trying to determine whether residents of Wilson Town, a predominantly black community near the 481-acre property, are the victims of environmental racism.

For the first time, officials will look at the locations of every landfill in Maryland and the racial and economic makeup of the surrounding communities.

That broad survey would have been conducted anyway, but it has been hastened by questions about Chesapeake Terrace, said W. Wallace Baker, director of the Office of Fair Practice in the Maryland Department of the Environment.

"People have come forward with allegations, but none have been pursued this far," Baker said.

Warren E. Halle and his Silver Spring company, National Waste Managers Inc., have been trying to open a rubble landfill in Odenton for years, but they have been stymied by the Anne Arundel County Council, which for the second time in three years struck the proposed facility from a draft solid waste management plan this week. The landfill must be listed in the plan before the Maryland Department of the Environment will grant it a permit.

Halle has fought the county's stance in court and in July won a ruling by a circuit judge ordering the county to place his landfill in its solid waste plan. The county is appealing.

Residents say an operation that could bring as many as 600 dump trucks a day to their roads will ruin their quiet life, hurt the environment and endanger their health.

Wilson Town is the community closest to the proposed landfill entrance at the end of Conway Road, and residents there have consistently joined with white residents of surrounding communities to oppose the facility in public hearings and in court.

But using charges of racial discrimination to fight the proposal is a new tactic, according to community leaders and officials familiar with the case.

"I think that this will get us there," said Harrison N. Johnson, vice president of the Anne Arundel County branch of the NAACP. "This is a form of justice that was overlooked at first."

The inquiry, informal so far, started when U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a 1st District Republican, asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency whether the Chesapeake Terrace case qualified for the agency's environmental justice program. The EPA and the MDE are working together on the issue.

"On the face, it seems there may be an issue," said Michael Burke, head of the government affairs group in the EPA's mid-Atlantic region office. "It needs a little bit more of a closer look."

Officials will determine whether the civil rights of Wilson Town residents would be violated by putting the landfill in their community, which borders a sand and gravel mine.

Residents could end up suing the MDE, the agency responsible for granting permits.

"By the time we get to a permit for a particular facility, the proposal has already gone through a zoning or citation process," Baker said. "Mostly, we are pretty much obligated to approve the permit" except in extreme cases.

Pub Date: 10/22/97

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