With cloud over stream, lake, DNR in hiding


February 27, 2005|By CANDUS THOMSON

WHERE IS MISS Nancy when we need her the most?

You remember the star of Romper Room and her Magic Mirror. She could see Julie and Donnie and Timmy and Susie.

Maybe she could have helped us last week find Ronnie and Lynn and Petey and Howie. The high-ranking boys and girls of the Department of Natural Resources were missing in action at a hearing on an emergency bill to help protect a state park and fish hatchery they oversee.

Instead, it was a bunch of citizens and several environmental groups that rallied around legislation filed by state Sen. E.J. Pipkin to stop the creation of a rubble landfill next to Unicorn Fish Management Area in Queen Anne's County.

Days Cove Reclamation Co., a company based in White Marsh, has applied for a permit to run a dump for construction debris in a 58-acre soybean field upstream from Unicorn Mill Pond. The lake was formed in the early 18th century when a nearby woolen mill built a dam across Unicorn Branch, a tributary of the Chester River, which in turn empties into the Chesapeake Bay.

The land was put in the local solid waste plan a decade ago by three county commissioners with rutabagas for brains who were subsequently voted out of office. Attempts to reverse their action has been successfully thwarted by Days Cove lawyers.

Local folks and elected leaders don't want the dump. Groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association, the Maryland League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club don't want it. The local congressman, Wayne Gilchrest, doesn't want it, either.

As a matter of fact, only one private citizen testified against Pipkin's bill.

(By the way, why do legislative committees bother with the charade of posting a hearing calendar? The Senate committee listening to testimony on this proposal started nearly 30 minutes late, forcing folks with real jobs and some college students watching the show to cool their heels. Then the emcee of the event, Sen. Paula Hollinger, rapped her gavel, failed to apologize for the inconvenience and began lecturing the peasant stock on hearing rules by saying, "I have a timer." Her Loftiness ought to start by using it on her committee, not the people who pay the freight.)

And where was DNR in all this? Unless officials were cleverly disguised as lighting fixtures, they made themselves scarce. No Secretary Ron Franks. No Deputy Secretary Lynn Buhl. No Assistant-Associate-Deputy Secretary Pete Jensen. No Fisheries Service Director Howard King. Not even an underling.

Now, the official DNR party line is that Pipkin's bill is the Maryland Department of the Environment's baby. MDE is the agency reviewing the landfill permit application by Days Cove Reclamation Co.

What a bunch of poppycock. DNR is as much a stakeholder in this as any Queen Anne's County resident.

Taxpayers bought DNR a park and spent lots of money building and maintaining the Unicorn fish hatchery that turns out thousands of brown trout, bluegills and perch every year. They also gave the department money to build a foot bridge, install riprap to prevent erosion and put in a fish ladder next to the dam to help herring reach their spawning waters.

DNR is mighty proud of this park and hatchery, calling the 43-acre lake a "freshwater fishing hot spot" on its Web site. And folks who work for the agency know Unicorn is something special.

In May 2003, the director of DNR's Environmental Review Unit spelled out some of the concerns of fisheries biologists in a letter to an official of the Department of the Environment:

"The lake is the direct source of water for the Unicorn Fish Hatchery, which is one of only two in the state, providing warm-water finfish species for inland and Chesapeake Bay fisheries management. To ensure continued functioning of this hatchery facility at its current level, it is imperative that the water quality in the lake not be impaired in any way," wrote Ray Dinament.

But he didn't stop there. Dinament noted the tributary has "exceptionally high water quality and supports an unusually high diversity and abundance of finfish species [14 total species]."

Because Unicorn Branch is spring-fed, water temperatures allow brown trout to live there year-round, making it unique on the Eastern Shore.

Dinament concluded: "It is the department's judgment that the proposed development could have significant impacts to sensitive resources located within the Unicorn Branch drainage system."

Based on that, you'd think DNR officials would want to keep an eye on their property.

Now, Days Cove hasn't done anything wrong in all this. It has followed the rules and complied with every official request for information.

The company has promised to be a good neighbor for the seven or so years it will take to fill up the site. Ken Binnix, the executive vice president, says the right things: "The landfill business is about protecting the environment. It's not about putting trash in a hole."

State environment officials expected the review of the Days Cove application will take at least two years.

Meanwhile, a House bill similar to Pipkin's will be heard in the Environmental Matters Committee on March 16. Things get under way at 1 p.m. or perhaps another time.

Pipkin says getting the bill approved will be very difficult. But without legislative action, he fears Unicorn will be unprotected because the environment department's review standards are too low.

"You can let the process run, but if the standards that govern the process are wrong, then you're going to get a bad outcome," Pipkin says. "We're going to fight to do what's right."

DNR will get another chance to do the same. Perhaps we need to dust off the old Magic Mirror and summon the spirit of Miss Nancy:

Romper Stomper Bomper Boo,

Tell me, tell me, tell me do.

Magic Mirror tell me today,

Did my DNR friends show up to play?

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