Activist abandons watchdog role Move is prompted by fight over pond work

March 01, 1998|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

A 75-year-old environmental activist who has spent 12 years trying to clean up a degraded Westminster stream resigned his volunteer task last week.

Westminster resident Monroe G. Haines' decision comes after several weeks of verbal battle with state and county officials. City and state police became involved after the self-proclaimed watchdog made statements that county officials interpreted as suicide threats. Haines says his comments were misunderstood.

Haines, for years a familiar figure along the banks of Longwell Run in Westminster, has vowed several times to end his daily routine of removing trash, filling jars with samples of water and reporting suspected pollution in the 1.7-mile-long rivulet. But this time, he said, the decision is final.

"Done, done, done, done!" Haines declared. "No more volunteer work, no more hot walks, no more trying to raise money."

The dispute began Feb. 3, when county inspectors allowed a contractor for the planned Cranberry Station Elementary School to pump out a sediment-control pond into a storm drain that leads to Longwell Run. The county staff feared that the pond, in the first block of Cranberry Road, would collapse and flood the adjacent Days Inn, according to James E. Slater Jr., environmental services administrator.

Haines said the pumping muddied the stream water to the crossing at Hahn Road, a distance of about one mile.

Haines objected vociferously to the pumping. "That pond wasn't going to fail," he said. "It could hold twice as much water as was in there."

The report of a suicide threat came after Haines got into a shouting match about two weeks ago with a worker who was operating the pump at the sediment-control pond. Haines said TC the employee threatened to push him into the pond if he didn't leave and he replied that he would give his life for the stream.

Haines left the site and went to the county office building, where Commissioner Donald I. Dell reported hearing Haines "screaming and hollering" at secretaries in the commissioners' office.

Dell said he tried to calm Haines and referred him to Slater. In Slater's office, Haines said he told the secretary he planned to return to the pond and "I was probably going to lose my life there."

Haines' explanation is that he feared violence from the contractor's employees, but he planned to risk it in order to "put that pump down in the pond."

County officials reported Haines' remarks to Westminster police, who referred them to state police because Haines lives outside the city limits. State police concluded that no psychiatric evaluation was necessary.

Dell said he acted out of concern for Haines in directing Slater to call city police Feb. 19, when Haines met with Maryland Department of the Environment employee Dave Ryder at a wetland adjoining Longwell Run near the county administration building on Center Street.

Two city officers frisked Haines at the wetland. Police Chief Sam Leppo said it is standard procedure to search for weapons in light of the previous call reporting that Haines had threatened suicide.

Haines said he has never carried a weapon. He said he believed the search was an effort "to break up my environmental conversation" with Ryder.

Slater said he was unaware that an MDE official was to meet with Haines. He said the police call was prompted by a county inspector's report that Haines was "belligerent" and was interfering with the inspector's work. "We have nothing to hide from MDE," Slater said.

The next day, Dell ordered "No Trespassing" signs posted in the wetland park. He said the ban will remain in effect during construction of additions to the Winchester Building and the detention center, both in the 100 block of Court St., although construction is not taking place in the park.

Haines said he didn't report to police that he had been threatened by the contractor's employee. In his years of activism, he said he has been threatened, sprayed with a pressure hose and arrested on charges of harassment, which prosecutors dropped.

"When I'm out doing field work, I sort of accept the threats that go with it," Haines said.

Haines has won environmental awards for his work from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. in five of the last six years and has donated $2,700 in prize money to the Westminster Fire and Hose Company No. 1. He also received a governor's award in 1993 for his volunteer work.

Despite Haines' objections to the pumping, Slater and MDE officials say they don't expect any permanent damage to the wetland or to Longwell Run. Slater said it was necessary to drain the pond to install a dewatering device. The contractors used filters, but fine clay sediment got through, he said.

The clay that got through consists of extremely fine, insoluble particles, Slater said. "It looks muddy, but if you wipe it on your pants, you're not going to see any mud."

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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