Returning to his roots

An activist rejoins the fight

Activist: An environmentalist turned developer returns to Curtis Bay to take on a company that he says threatens a neighborhood and his latest project.

March 09, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Twenty years ago, Stephen McAllister and his crew of Greenpeace activists put on their hazmat suits and sailed into a Curtis Bay creek to block a chemical company's waste-discharge pipe.

On a recent afternoon, the Charles County developer returned to that site, stepping out of his Jaguar and through the jagged hole in the industrial yard's rusty fence. He walked past barrels of waste, cast-off boats and mangled car parts to reach the creek. The waste pipe and the chemical company are long gone, but the creek bed is still there, filled with flowing sewage.

"This is what is going into our Chesapeake Bay," McAllister said. "And nobody has anybody out here watching."

Lately, the long, lean 54-year-old sounds less like the developer he has become and more like the in-the-trenches environmentalist he used to be.

That's because his proposed 1,000-home development near the Anne Arundel County-Baltimore line is within sight of the creek where he inspired a generation of activists and kick-started his own Greenpeace career.

But it's also because McAllister is again fighting a Curtis Bay company, joining with residents to stop Valley Proteins from resuming an animal-rendering operation nearby.

When a 2002 fire destroyed its cooker, the Winchester, Va.-based company turned to recycling restaurant grease. With the rendering stink gone, neighbors welcomed a rebirth.

As Valley Proteins seeks state and county permits for its $5.5 million plant expansion, Curtis Bay residents are circulating petitions and writing to regulators. McAllister, meanwhile, has hired lawyers to challenge Valley Proteins' permit applications.

Valley Proteins Vice President Michael Smith said he hadn't expected such resistance, especially because the new plans call for strict odor controls.

"He has interfered with the process," Smith said, adding that environmentalists like McAllister should support rendering because it keeps animal byproducts out of landfills. "We were there first, and we're in a properly zoned area. Why should we move because he wants to develop an area that hasn't been developed that way in the past?"

But McAllister has seen Curtis Bay's past, and envisions something else for its future.

Discovering Greenpeace

Raised on a Vermont dairy farm, McAllister discovered Greenpeace when saw a bright boat covered with flags and peace symbols docked in Boston Harbor. He fell in love with the Rainbow Warrior, its hippie crew and their mission. He became the ship's carpenter, cruising up the Gulf of St. Lawrence to save the harp seals.

Soon, McAllister and his wife, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology architecture student, scrounged up $12,000 for a sailboat, named Aleyka after their oldest daughter. By day, they sold T-shirts from it; by night, they trolled for polluters.

When McAllister received a tip that American Recovery, a chemical-waste recycler, was dumping waste into the bay, he and his family moved to Maryland, where he galvanized the week-long campaign against the Curtis Bay company.

In September 1983, after weeks of surveillance, the Greenpeace team sailed the Aleyka into the creek's mouth and made their way to the pipe. Though plant workers roughed up one activist and tried to intimidate the group, the campaign succeeded.

Regulators investigated the company. Eventually, its general manager was sentenced to several months in prison for attempting to cover up dumping thousands of gallons of waste into a bay tributary. The company went out of business. But Greenpeace was just getting started.

Bill Eichbaum, then an assistant secretary for the state health department, met McAllister on the Eastern Shore, where both were working on their sailboats. After some beers on the sleeping-bag-strewn Aleyka, Eichbaum arranged for him to meet the governor.

"Those of us who lived in Maryland had a tendency to take the bay for granted," said Eichbaum, now vice president for endangered spaces at the World Wildlife Fund. "We had to turn around public opinion to get people more involved. I always felt that Greenpeace's ability to get public attention was extremely important."

For creek activists like Dave Rapaport, the support from the community during the fight against American Recovery was the most incredible part of the experience. When residents learned he worked for Greenpeace, he said, they wanted to buy him dinner.

Changing lives

"We never had done anything like what we did, so we didn't know what to expect. It took a lot of courage, and it was Steve's show. I learned a tremendous amount from him," said Rapaport, who runs a Vermont wind-energy farm. "There was a very powerful and palpable sense that we were involved in changing people's lives."

But the work wasn't financially lucrative. By 1985, when McAllister became director of Greenpeace USA, he earned $16,000 a year and rehabbed houses to support his family.

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