Talks on ash upset panel

Lack of updates by state and BBSS frustrates council

September 12, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,Sun reporter

Anne Arundel County Council members expressed frustration yesterday that they know little about negotiations between the state's environmental agency and the operator of a fly-ash dump site to clean up contaminated water in Gambrills.

Without updates from either the Maryland Department of the Environment or the dump operator, BBSS Inc., the council members said it's difficult for them to make an informed decision on a bill to ban the further dumping of coal ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants.

"If we are going to have a bill on such an important subject, it would be nice to have MDE here," said County Council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr.

The measure would only forbid new dumping sites and would have no effect on whether Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. can continue disposing of fly ash at the 80-acre Gambrills site near Route 3, where the county found cancer-causing metals in nearly two dozen wells last year. Last month, the MDE filed a consent order requiring BBSS to pay an unspecified but "significant" fine and clean up the water. State officials said they will go to court if an agreement is not reached by Oct. 1.

Robert Ballinger, a spokesman for MDE, said yesterday that the agency has been working as a partner with the county.

"Our efforts and the actions we have taken show that," he said, noting that the agency cannot discuss pending enforcement actions but has had meetings with county officials. "The end of this month is the deadline to have the consent decree signed, and we are working on getting that done."

Bob DiPietro, a consultant who represents BBSS, declined to directly comment after yesterday's council discussion of the issue.

Representatives from BBSS and BGE's parent company, Constellation Energy, are likely to testify at the public hearing on the county legislation set for Monday. A vote could be taken that night, although Dillon, a Pasadena Republican, said yesterday he wants to hear from MDE officials before voting on the legislation.

Dillon said the state officials are reluctant to talk before Oct. 1.

BGE has disposed of about 200,000 tons of fly ash at the Gambrills property since the mid-1990s. Fly ash is not regulated by the state or the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and states have varying regulations on its use and storage.

An eight-month, $100,000 study by the county in coordination with the Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Department of the Environment found contaminants, including cadmium and thallium, that far exceeded federal thresholds in 20 private wells near the Gambrills dump site.

BBSS officials have said that cancer-causing metals that have leached into the groundwater are not associated with fly ash. Nevertheless, BGE and BBSS have been taking bottled water to affected home sites, especially near Summerfield Road.

It's unclear what role BGE is playing in the negotiations and the remediation effort, but according to county officials, Constellation Energy is involved in the talks.

Yesterday, Frances B. Phillips, the county's health officer, implored the council at its work session to pass the emergency measure regardless of the progress of the negotiations.

"I am not confident that a consent order will be satisfactory to protect all areas of the county," said Phillips, referring to the negotiations. "The way to protect county residents is this legislation. I would urge the council not to wait to institute the ban."

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat who represents Gambrills, said it's "reasonable to conclude" that the agreement "will be less than a ban on fly ash. I think everyone knows that. So I think it's a policy decision that the county is going to have to make."

Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale said she had some "fundamental questions."

"There are discussions between MDE and Constellation, and we have no sense about what those negotiations are," said Vitale, a Severna Park Republican. "I feel like we are doing this in a hole."

Drawing on the findings of the study done in June, Phillips concluded that fly ash is the culprit behind elevated levels of contaminants in private wells.

She referred to the contamination of wells as a "public health threat."

"We found these were disturbing results, but we felt we got lucky because most people are served by public water," Phillips said. "If this had been another place in the county - because there is no restriction on where [fly ash] can be kept - it could have had a much more disturbing impact" because of the unavailability of a public water supply.

Phillips stressed that the contamination does not affect the county's Crofton Meadow well, which provides drinking water for at least 70,000 residents.

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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