Communities do wait, see on pollution

Hearing will address Coast Guard Yard being Superfund site

Problems date to 1940s

Residents say facility is a good neighbor `being real up front'

October 02, 2001|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

They've fought Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. over fly ash and anhydrous ammonia, driven away wealthy developers looking to build a racetrack and battled the Maryland Port Administration over a plan to create a dredge island - all in the past three years.

Getting dumped on comes with the territory, say those living in Pasadena's peninsula communities. So, too, they say, does fighting back.

But those who plan to attend the public hearing tonight on whether to place the U.S. Coast Guard Yard at Curtis Bay on the Environmental Protection Agency's list of hazardous sites say they're not coming in with fists raised this time. They say they're in a listening mode.

"Call me a Pollyanna, but I think they're being real up front about it," Pasadena resident Marcia Drenzyk said, describing the Coast Guard as a good neighbor in its handling of the issue.

Drenzyk, who said that many of her neighbors work for the Coast Guard, added, "How can I have a gripe with them? I have none."

The joint Coast Guard-EPA hearing is at 7 p.m. at the Orchard Beach Volunteer Fire Department, 7549 Solley Road.

The Curtis Bay site became a candidate for the Superfund list last month, but Coast Guard officials have been assessing contamination for a decade at the 113-acre yard, which is on the east side of Curtis Creek, on the Anne Arundel side of the county's border with Baltimore City.

The problems stem from World War II, when more than 3,000 employees worked round-the-clock, repairing and renovating ships used in the nation's defense.

Samples collected recently from contaminated soil at the yard revealed traces of pesticides, degreasers, metals and polychlorinated biphenyls, said EPA spokesman David Sternberg.

Capt. William Cheever, the yard's commanding officer, said he hopes the Superfund designation provides more money and expertise to clean up the damage.

Cheever also is encouraging neighbors to attend the hearing.

He organized a yard tour for Pasadena resident Lester Ettlinger, an independent environmental consultant who is helping his neighbors decipher complexities of potential contamination.

"I've told my staff to invite him to our yard, so that he sees what we have in our hands, he knows what we know," Cheever said. "There are no secrets here."

Neighbors say that forthrightness has made all the difference in their attitude.

Drenzyk, who first heard about the hearing from a Coast Guard newsletter, acknowledged that Superfund "sounds pretty scary." But even more frightening, she said, is ignoring the problem.

Drenzyk and her neighbors have not always been so complimentary in such situations.

For 17 years, residents fought a BGE practice of dumping fly ash, a byproduct of the coal-burning that generates power for the region, at the power company's Marley Neck property. They formed grass-roots groups, including the Coalition of Communities and Citizens Against Fly Ash, and in 1999, the utility agreed to stop the practice.

That year, residents from another group - Citizens Against the Racing Stadium Site, or CARS - celebrated the defeat of a 61,000-seat auto racetrack proposed for the area.

By the summer of last year, residents were again agitated over BGE's plan to truck anhydrous ammonia, a hazardous chemical, through the community. Children wearing gas masks picketed the site. By last fall, the utility agreed to truck a more diluted form of the chemical through the neighborhood.

And three months ago, members of yet another group, Citizens Against the Pasadena Dredge Island, cheered news that a scientific panel favored putting a proposed dredging site somewhere else.

Del. Mary M. Rosso, a Democrat who has represented the area since 1998, calls the residents "a major watchdog constituency."

Rosso was among those leading the fight to close the Solley Road landfill in the 1970s and 1980s. She and other activists brought in Lois Gibbs, one of the driving forces behind the Love Canal cleanup, to speak at Glen Burnie High School in 1982. What Gibbs said - "get everyone involved" - stuck with her.

Slowly, the neighborhood has done that. During the racetrack fight, neighbors developed an e-mail network they still use to share information about public meetings and coordinate carpools.

Said Drenzyk: "It's an ongoing thing, and it's not terribly organized, but it's pretty effective."

In the past five years, the neighborhood has lost two of its best environmental warriors to cancer, Donald J. Mawn and Lewis Winfield Bellinger. But they always recruit new neighbors.

Ettlinger, who has been one of the most active in seeking information about the Coast Guard, has lived in the area 18 months. Before that, he and his family lived in Mount Washington for 30 years.

He said he attended his first community meeting in many years when he heard about plans to truck anhydrous ammonia through the area. "Out of the woodwork came a support group that was just enormous," he said.

That network is going to be crucial as the group navigates thorny Superfund issues.

When Fort Meade was declared a Superfund site in 1997, the post's environmental engineer, Jim Gebhardt, wasn't sure how the Army and its surrounding West County neighbors would work together.

"A lot of people didn't know what was going on, and they were scared," he recalled. "They would come to the meetings to vent, and it was really not constructive. There was a lot of yelling."

But after a few months, Gebhardt said, the two groups started to work together.

He said the Coast Guard is smart to involve the community early. "The best thing you can do," he said, "is have the community on your side from the get-go."

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