BGE signs agreement on fly ash

Solley community declares success after 17-year dispute

Both sides drop appeals

Utility to turn ash into concrete additive in processing plant

September 29, 1999|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A community organization and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. signed a truce yesterday, ending a bitter dispute that lasted nearly two decades over the utility's use of coal ash to level the ground at BGE's Marley Neck business park.

The legal wrangling between BGE and the surrounding Glen Burnie community had reached Maryland's second-highest court. It comes on the heels of BGE's ending its dumping of fly ash on its Marley Neck property last month and promising not to use fly ash there again.

The agreement gives the Solley neighborhood a hard-fought win, but it is not a loss for BGE, which has used 4 million tons of ash for structural fill at its Brandon Woods business park. In April, the company opened a multimillion-dollar processing plant that turns much of the ash into a concrete additive, so BGE no longer needs the fill site.

"It is hard to believe, because it was such a long-fought battle. People kept saying, `You'll never win. You're up against the big guys.' But it's a major win for perseverance," said environmental activist Mary M. Rosso, president of the Coalition of Communities and Citizens Against Flyash, who was propelled into the House of Delegates partly as a result of the fly ash issue.

"We will never again place any more fly ash at Brandon Woods," said BGE spokeswoman Rose Muhlhausen. "We have new technology now."

The court case that would have been heard Friday by the Court of Special Appeals is headed for dismissal under terms of the agreement. BGE dropped its appeal in July, and the two residents who lodged an appeal for the neighborhood agreed this week to drop theirs.

Under the agreement filed in the appellate court, BGE will ask Anne Arundel County officials to rescind a grading permit for the third section of Brandon Woods. It also will not take advantage of permission it got last year to place fly ash on that section, the contentious special exception that BGE and its neighbors had appealed.

The two residents, Casper Hackmann and Jane Nes, could not be reached yesterday.

Disputes between BGE and the community began when BGE started placing fly ash on Marley Neck in 1982. Since then, the company has deposited 4 million tons there. Community anger over the fly ash ignited a decade later amid neighborhood fears that the ash posed an environmental and health threat, was creating flooding and left a fine dust on nearby property. Federal and state officials said the substance was not a hazard.

In 1994, neighbors spurred passage of a county law requiring BGE to obtain a special exception to fill a site with the ash. Before that, BGE needed routine permits to grade the land. The Solley neighborhood's challenge, which ends this week, is the only one made under the law.

"We never would have had the opportunity to do the challenge had it not been for the special exception law. The special exception law was the only vehicle the community had to go in and challenge this. It goes to show that things do work after a while," Rosso said.

The legal battle over the special exception began about three years ago. The Anne Arundel County Board of Appeals granted the exception last year in a decision that left both sides unhappy. The board conditioned its approval on BGE's installing a clay liner beneath the ash, at an estimated cost of $10 million, to protect ground water. Residents did not want the fly ash under any circumstances. Both sides appealed to the Circuit Court, where the ruling was upheld, and both sides appealed to the Court of Special Appeals.

Fly ash, a combination of fine gray dust and small chunks of coal, is a byproduct of coal-burning at BGE's Brandon Shores and H.A. Wagner electricity-generating plants.

In April, BGE began processing ash at a new plant at Brandon Shores that separates the ash chunks for reburning from the dust used in concrete. The dust is sold for concrete mix, Muhlhausen said. In recent years, BGE ash has gone into the construction of Jack Kent Cooke Stadium in Prince George's County and the widening of the Baltimore Beltway near the Key Bridge.

In July, the utility said that by Aug. 15, it would end its use of fly ash for structural fill at the business park.

Relations between BGE and its neighbors remain strained, although both sides say they hope that with the end of the legal tangling they can begin to repair them.

BGE is offering to enter into an agreement with state environmental officials to monitor wells and runoff water. It has been testing water quality voluntarily and "found nothing that would impact human health or the environment," Muhlhausen said.

"This is a good-faith commitment because of the concerns of the community," she said.

Muhlhausen said the company is willing to discuss nearby residents' other concerns.

That will be crucial, Rosso said, because neighbors blame chronic flooding on the utility and want assurances that BGE will maintain sites with ash in them. The areas are covered with dirt and grass.

"BGE still has a lot more to do with the community. Maybe now is the time to do that," Rosso said.

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