State accepts blame for failing to notify public on chemicals MDE officials say Md. had misplaced records concerning 5 companies

June 10, 1998|By Joe Mathews and Heather Dewar | Joe Mathews and Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

The state of Maryland yesterday accepted blame for gaps in the public's information about the dangerous compounds used by big chemical companies that ring South Baltimore's Wagner's Point.

Officials of the Maryland Department of the Environment told a group that had planned to sue seven big South Baltimore chemical companies that the state had misplaced records on chemicals used by five of the seven companies. MDE also failed to notice that two companies did not notify the state about some of the hazardous chemicals they used, but those companies have now done so, MDE officials said.

The Emergency Preparedness and Community Right-to-Know Act requires companies to disclose the information. States are required to make it available to citizens. The data helps communities cope with chemical emergencies and give citizens leverage in persuading companies to reduce pollution. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol M. Browner describes the law as one of the country's most effective pollution-fighting tools.

In April, the newly formed Cleanup Coalition notified seven big chemical companies with plants in Wagner's Point that it intended to sue them for failing to comply with the federal law.

But in a June 3 letter to Cleanup Coalition attorney Rena Steinzor, an MDE official said five of the seven chemical companies had actually turned over the required information. But the filings were misplaced by MDE.

"Despite the best efforts of our staff to maintain the existing paper records, filing errors do occasionally occur," Michael S. Haire, director of MDE's Technical and Regulatory Services Administration, wrote in the letter.

MDE has only one employee to handle chemical reports from 3,000 companies each year, so some mistakes are to be `D expected, said George Harman, MDE's manager for emergency operations and emergency response.

Steinzor said she will meet with Wagner's Point community leaders and review the legal issues before deciding on whether to pursue the suit.

Haire's letter prompted chemical companies and environmental groups to blast MDE for its shortcomings. South Baltimore community activist Doris McGuigan said MDE's files on companies' chemical use have been in disarray for years.

"They have everything thrown in boxes," McGuigan said. "They'll take you in this room and tell you to look for it. They don't even know which box it's in."

Mary Rosso, president of the Maryland Waste Coalition, said the state should consider auditing all of MDE's records.

"Everything is such a mess with MDE records," Rosso said. "The only surprise is that they have written down that they were wrong."

Kent Young, a spokesman for Citgo Petroleum Corp. in Oklahoma, said the company was also frustrated with MDE.

"We don't want to cast blame," Young said. "There really ought to be a better system of tracking so these reports aren't lost again."

Harman said MDE has received a $103,000 grant from the EPA to computerize the records. That process that should begin around July 1.

Pub Date: 6/10/98

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