Fly ash's foes focus

Despite utility's move, opponents of the coal by-product stay active

Monitoring air, water

July 11, 1999|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

After nearly 20 years of battling a powerful utility -- and gaining a major victory -- some activists might have celebrated loudly, then returned to the normal business of life.

Not the residents of the Solley community in northern Anne Arundel County.

Although the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. recently announced an end to its policy of using fly ash as fill in Brandon Woods Business Park, area residents aren't ready to celebrate yet.

They vow to keep pressing the utility giant on environmental and safety issues related to fly ash -- the gray dust and chunks that are a byproduct of burning coal at BGE's Brandon Shores and H. A. Wagner electricity-generating plants.

"They threw us a curve, a nice curve, one that we didn't expect," said environmental activist and Democratic state Del. Mary M. Rosso. "We're glad they're not going to bury us under another 5 million tons of fly ash, but that doesn't solve everything."

For members of the Coalition of Communities and Citizens Against Fly Ash, the utility's promise to stop dumping at the Brandon Woods site raises new issues even as some old concerns are put to rest.

Group members want utility and state environment officials to ensure the safety of air and water in the surrounding area.

Residents have long claimed that the powdery gray substance is a potential respiratory hazard and could contaminate the ground water and drinking aquifer. Utility executives have said it is a natural product that has never proved toxic, with state and federal agencies ruling that the ash was safe.

Monitoring effects

State and federal environmental agencies have found the ash not to be hazardous, and the Maryland Department of the Environment is drafting permits that will require BGE to monitor the effects of fly ash at the site. Still, residents say they have serious concerns about the 4 million tons of fly ash that BGE has deposited at the 500-acre office and industrial park since 1982.

"I think they still owe the community something," said Casper Hackmann, a Solley resident and member of the coalition. "They've done a lot of harm with the fly ash and the future harm is undetermined."

Frustration with officials

The coalition had its beginnings in a group of Solley residents who began worrying in 1982.

"Problems constantly arose," said Hackmann, 77, a lifelong neighborhood resident. "I could hardly use my front porch. Every time we went out there, we had to wipe the fly ash from the table."

He said residents became increasingly frustrated over the years in their attempts to obtain information from BGE officials. In 1993, fly ash opponents formed the coalition.

"It just built up over a period of time, and we decided if we were ever going to get any decent answers out of these people, we were going to have to organize," Hackmann said.

Air, water concerns

Glenn Nilsen, BGE supervisor of ash operation, said the utility will continue working with the Solley community, but it has no plans to expand its monitoring operations.

"With respect to air quality, the primary concern has been the actual ash operation," Nilsen said. "By us not placing any more ash and shutting down the operation we felt like we were responding to the community's concerns -- not that we believe it was a valid concern. But it was one way to make the issue go away," he said.

Coalition members see things differently. They still have concerns about air quality, as well as new questions about future ownership and maintenance of the site, BGE's new ash-processing plant and disturbance of buried fly ash from additional construction at the business park.

Rosso said the coalition plans to compile a list of its concerns relating to the planned cessation of fly ash dumping.

"We need to do a specific document based on the information that we have, what the site looks like and what we expect in the future," said Rosso, elected to the House of Delegates last year. "If you look at landfill closures, and I consider this to be a fly ash landfill, you really need maintenance and monitoring."

In response to community concerns, state environmental officials have drafted operating permits for BGE's fly ash disposal operation that for the first time include conditions with respect to air and water quality.

Ground water discharge permits will require BGE to continue monitoring water at sampling wells placed around the disposal site, said Jim Dieter, program administrator with the state's wastewater permits program. For years, the utility has tested water from the sampling wells on a voluntary basis.

"This will ensure that monitoring continues, even on the closed-out [fly ash disposal] site," Dieter said. "Should a problem arise, MDE could step in and take enforcement action."

Air-quality permits will require BGE to meet certain conditions when transporting fly ash from the plant to the disposal site. The requirements are still useful, even though BGE will no longer deposit fly ash at the site, said Karen Irons, the state's air-quality permits program manager.

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