MDE wants to evaluate compliance at fire site

Fire code inspectors for Balto. Co. have found no violations at plant

August 10, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

State environmental officials said they won't be able to determine whether owners of a mulch plant in Sparrows Point were following rules to prevent fires at the facility until the blaze, which has burned for two days, is out.

Baltimore County firefighters used backhoes yesterday to lift debris from the burning piles of wood to get closer to the fire's core. "That's going to be our strategy until we get it," said Lt. Vernon S. Adamson, a Fire Department spokesman.

He predicted that firefighters would battle the flames and smoke, which was visible for miles, through today and possibly through the weekend.

Inspectors with the state's Department of the Environment issued a complaint against the company that runs the plant, Environmental Recycling Waste Reduction Co., on Thursday for creating a public nuisance, discharging air pollutants and creating a situation harmful to public health.

But Baltimore County fire code inspectors found no violations at the site when the fire began about 4 a.m. Thursday and have found none since then, Adamson said. For example, he said, the wood piles were spaced far enough apart that fire engines were able to get through to the flames.

"We have no issues with the company," said Adamson.

`Responsible for ... site'

The smoke, initially visible as far away as Annapolis and northern Baltimore County, didn't create an immediate risk to public health, said Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment. But, he said, the company was issued the citation for the fire "because they're still responsible for control of the site."

McIntire said the complaint -- though not a warning -- was the first step in the enforcement of environmental regulations. "If we find out someone went in there and doused the place with gasoline, it's possible the company would face no penalties."

Consent decree in effect

After a fire in 1996 at the same site, ERWR has been operating under a consent decree that ordered it to take steps to prevent fires, such as periodically turning over its mulch piles to prevent spontaneous combustion and to space the mounds of mulch at certain distances.

ERWR has permits from the Department of the Environment to operate a natural-wood and a solid-waste processing facility, McIntire said.

But McIntire said environmental inspectors wouldn't be able to fully evaluate ERWR's level of compliance with the state's rules for operating those types of plants until at least next week. First, firefighters must control the blaze and, they hope, determine what caused it, he said. And until the state inspector who has been monitoring ERWR returns from vacation, officials won't have access to the company's inspection records, McIntire said.

"I don't know what the state is going to do," said Steve Timchula, one of the owners of ERWR. "Our inspections have come up with no failings. So far, they've just cited us for the smoke in the air."

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