Grass-roots activism hailed in defeat of landfill plan

Arundel neighbors labored to keep dump from homes

September 25, 2000|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Elise G. Rand couldn't believe it when she heard in December that a rubble landfill was proposed near her Gambrills home. She and her husband, Jim, had moved to the area more than a year earlier and had specifically chosen their new house because it wasn't by a landfill.

"It was a shock," said Rand, a member of the Greater Gambrills Citizens Pollution Task Force. "I was just stunned when I looked at the site plan and saw where it was ... just literally steps away from homes and the community."

But Rand, who was notified about the proposal during a Maryland Department of the Environment informational meeting, wasn't going to let it happen without a fight. And neither were her neighbors, who immediately launched what would become a major grass-roots campaign to fight the landfill.

And they won. The petitions, the letters, the fliers, the long hours, the shoe leather, even a canoe expedition to gather sediment samples that would show possible problems at the site, paid off.

This month, when the state killed the 7-year-old proposal submitted by James E. Cunningham, owner of Cunningham Excavating and Cunningham Asphalt, it was the first time in 20 years that the state denied a landfill permit after a public hearing - a step that comes late in the process, said Richard McIntire, MDE spokesman.

The department credited the residents' concerns as part of their decision for the denial, saying it also considered the business' past violations of Maryland environmental laws.

"I think it is obvious in this case that the citizens coming forward with some additional information was very credible evidence in terms of helping us make a proper decision," McIntire said.

The residents are ecstatic.

"I let out a big `Woo-hoo!'" Michael D. Noon, who lives next door to Rand, said of his reaction to the decision. "I think what people should definitely take away from that is that your voice can make a difference, without a doubt."

The residents protested the proposal because they felt the site - next to Cunningham's closed rubble landfill on Capitol Raceway Road - is too close to schools, churches and GORC Park, and might put residents' health and safety at risk. They were also concerned that the landfill would bring heavy truck traffic on Route 3.

The proposed site "was intimidating to say the least," Noon said. "It was unbelievable."

Rand, Noon and a core of about 15 residents along Waugh Chapel and Evergreen roads had dedicated long hours to their cause since December. They gathered signatures on petitions, wrote letters, went door to door, handed out fliers and set up a Web site to inform neighbors about the potential dangers of the landfill.

The residents even organized a canoe trip down the Little Patuxent River in December to investigate the property on which Cunningham's closed landfill lies. An environmental consultant from the community took soil samples while on the trip and found possible petroleum contamination, Rand said.

The residents garnered support from hundreds of community members, who signed the petitions and attended the MDE's public hearing on the issue in February.

The MDE reviewed evidence from inspections conducted by the state and by residents, which identified three illegal dumpsites on the property. In January, the state ordered Cunningham to clean up the sites, where old tires and auto parts had been dumped near the Patuxent River.

County Councilman Bill D. Burlison supported the residents and commended their dedication to the cause.

"I just felt that there was an enormous response from homeowners in the Gambrills area, and the leaders for the opposition just did a marvelous job in orchestrating that opposition," he said. "The grass-roots effort just virtually brought in the entire community."

The residents are trying to contain their excitement, however, because they know the fight isn't over. Cunningham's lawyer, Michael R. Roblyer, said his client plans to file an appeal with the state Office of Administrative Hearings.

But residents said they will continue to fight for their cause.

"We think that landfill is absolutely inappropriate for the community," Rand said. "It just doesn't make any sense to put a landfill where they're talking about putting it."

Cunningham did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Noon said residents aren't against developing the land. He said they are trying to create a discussion about alternative uses, such as a golf course or a school.

"We're pretty tolerant and understanding of development," he said. "But landfills just don't belong there."

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