Officials rescind OK for plant

Balto. County says zoning may not allow oil refining

Firm says it would only recycle

Residents oppose facility

public hearing required

August 09, 2004|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County officials have rescinded their approval for an oil recycling plant in the North Point area of eastern Baltimore County, bringing at least a temporary halt to a project opposed by many in a community long saddled with the byproducts of industry.

Although U.S. Filter Recovery Services had moved equipment to the site near the Back River, and had received a favorable "preliminary determination" from the state Department of the Environment and a go-ahead in May from the county department that oversees development, the company must seek approval for its plant at a public hearing.

"I put a freeze on the operation until such a hearing," said Timothy M. Kotroko, director of the county Department of Permits and Development Management.

The county acted after discovering through Maryland Department of the Environment records that the company's plans for the plant amounted to "refining" oil, which is not necessarily allowed under zoning for the property, according to a letter sent recently from the county to lawyers for U.S. Filter.

"When they first came to us," Kotroko said, "they failed to inform us about the heating and chemical process that takes it out of recycling into refining. When we saw the MDE document, we stepped in. In zoning matters, things can hinge on a couple of words."

A U.S. Filter official said the company did not mislead the county or the state and that the plant is to be a "recovery operation," not a refinery. That official, business unit manager Vince Glorioso, added that the plant's emissions would not pose any danger to its neighbors.

But residents of the nearby Wells McComas community don't want the plant in their neighborhood.

Nancy Donahue, 64, who lives about 150 yards from where the plant would be, wonders what will come out of the plant and asks, "Will I have to live in a bubble because of this?"

The community, named after two local heroes of the War of 1812, includes riverfront homes and a large mobile home park, where many retirees live. It is near the Norris Farm Landfill, a longtime environmental hot spot that was closed nearly two decades ago after a long community-led fight.

Fred Thiess, acting president of the 700-member Wells McComas Citizens Improvement Association, said residents regularly contend with foul odors from the Back River Sewage Treatment Plant and a nearby yeast company, and that the river is so badly polluted that "if anyone catches anything, they don't eat it."

Guido Guarnaccia, a longtime homeowner and activist, said he and his neighbors are frustrated that U.S. Filter wants to move in because "we already live in an industrial ghetto."

Residents' fears

Some older homeowners fear that pollutants from the oil recycling plant would cause health problems. Parents worry about long-term effects on their children.

Community leaders have enlisted the support of public officials in their fight.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. wrote a letter July 30 to the head of the state Air and Radiation Management Administration, praising the community's pride and urging "your department to examine the effects this facility would have on the residents."

Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Dundalk Democrat, has criticized the firm as "presumptuous; it smacked of a done deal" for moving heavy equipment onto the site. And Del. Joseph J. "Sonny" Minnick, another Dundalk Democrat, said, "The state should stop this one completely. It would be a huge blunder."

`Matter of trust'

U.S. Filter officials said they have tried to build a relationship with the community. In two public meetings, company officials said such pollutants as sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide will be kept to a safe level. Furthermore, Glorioso said, the company has offered community leaders trips to other U.S. Filter operations around the nation and to install a hot line for Wells McComas residents to his office.

"It is a matter of trust," Glorioso said. "It takes years to build trust, and we can't afford to stumble. We emit such low levels of emissions that they would barely register."

The company did not renew its lease in June for its former location at ISG, Glorioso said. He said the company was facing time constraints after it moved and found the 21-acre site in North Point, of which U.S. Filter has leased 3 acres.

The site was attractive, he said, because of the proximity to the port, major highways and homes of about 60 employees. Few, if any, jobs would be created, Glorioso said.

"We leased the new site, received the proper approvals to build an office and move our equipment there," he said.

The company plans to produce about 7 million gallons of recycled oil annually. They would take used oil from commercial and industrial sites and, through a chemical and heating process, extract the usable oil and sell it to more than 15 customers in the metropolitan region, Glorioso said.

According to the county's July 26 letter to U.S. Filter lawyers, the county initially determined that the plant met the requirements of the land's heavy-manufacturing zoning, with a provision that "no refining of the subject substances is permitted on site." But in that letter the county cited the MDE records and said the company would have to seek approval for a "special exception" under zoning law.

The company is challenging that decision. Glorioso and company attorneys met with county zoning officials last week. If the company files for an exception, a public hearing will be scheduled for 45 to 60 days later.

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