Getting down and dirty to combat pollution

April 28, 2006|By CONNOR ADAMS SHEETS | CONNOR ADAMS SHEETS,CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

CENTREVILLE -- Sveinn Storm's late father taught him when he was a boy to fight for what he believes in.

"My father taught me that sometimes righting a wrong is worth getting a black eye or a bloody nose," he said.

It's a principle the 50-year-old Centreville resident has followed - perhaps too enthusiastically, his critics say - as he has carved out a career as the Eastern Shore's unofficial environmental sleuth.

The owner of two downtown Annapolis businesses, he is part Robin Hood, part James Bond, and always on the trail of those he thinks are polluting.

For instance, when he suspected that Centreville's spray irrigation fields were in violation of a state permit, Storm decided he needed to do some on-site investigation, albeit without the town's permission.

To scope out the facility, he crawled along a tree-covered ridge, sneaked across the fields to a nearby reservoir and took snapshots of the alleged violations, all while on the lookout for security guards.

He has found himself in any number of tight spots when trying to get information to catch what he calls the "bad guys": creeping through the forest to evade security guards, hopping into getaway cars and doing airplane flyovers to find the best ways to infiltrate facilities. He compares his tactics to war, minus the violence.

As a result, Storm says, he has received death threats, his car's tail lights have been smashed and he was arrested when he refused to leave what he described as an "illegally closed" session of the Queen Anne's County Board of Commissioners.

"Have I broken the law? Absolutely. Have I ever done damage or stolen anything? Absolutely not," Storm said. "In Centreville I had a whistleblower on the inside who I asked for documents, and I made sure to use my own copy paper and my ink so they couldn't say I stole anything from them."

Some local officials agree that he has been effective, if unconventional.

"He's the most diligent guy I know in this county," said Mitchell A. Keiler, a Queenstown commissioner and a restoration projects manager at the Department of Natural Resources. "He's got that little bit of abrasion about him sometimes. ... I'd like to see a kinder, gentler Storm sometime in the future, but we probably won't see that this lifetime."

Others, however, say that Storm's brashness and his methods distract from his ability to make a difference.

Michael Whitehill is one such person. The one-time Centreville Town Council president has been attacked by Storm regarding alleged connections between the town government and his engineering firm, McCrone Inc.

Whitehill says he respects Storm and the work he does for Centreville but takes issue with what he regards as Storm's penchant for "sensationalism." Storm, Whitehill says, often "chooses to put something in the local news versus bringing it forward first for a public hearing."

Storm makes no apologies for ruffling feathers. He says he revels in catching politicians and then calling them out during public testimony.

"I like to be able to get up there and smack them in the face," he said. "I try to affect politics as much as I can, getting the bad guys out and the good guys in."

Storm's father gave him more than advice on principles. An expert on wastewater treatment and water quality industries, he passed down an expertise that Storm uses to run down violations of water regulations.

Perhaps his greatest triumph came in spring 2004 when he teamed up with a WBAL-TV news reporter to do an award-winning story on raw sewage leaking from Centreville's aging sewage plant into a tributary of the Corsica River. The story led to a state investigation of some state and local officials.

Lately, Storm says, he has entertained thoughts of slowing down. He has five children, including 8-month-old George and 4-year-old Sophie, a "very understanding wife" named Leslie and he says his health is not what it used to be.

"I might be a little crazy, but I'm not stupid. ... The most difficult part about this is understanding that there's a risk to my family," Storm said. "Even though your family is important, your convictions are, too."

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