Talk delays fly-ash vote

3 GOP members of council accused of filibustering bill

September 19, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,Sun reporter

Democrats and the Leopold administration leveled accusations of filibustering yesterday against Republican members of the Anne Arundel County Council, whose objections forced a delay on legislation to ban the dumping of coal ash at new sites.

After more than three hours of testimony and deliberations Monday night, the council appeared ready to vote with six minutes to go until midnight, the deadline to consider the emergency bill.

But comments by Council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks and Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale - who voted unsuccessfully moments earlier to delay a vote for two weeks - took up the rest of the time.

"I think we just got filibustered," said Alan R. Friedman, the county's chief lobbyist, as council members were forced to adjourn.

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat who represents Gambrills, agreed.

"They played four-corners offense," he said, referring to the stalling tactics of past great University of North Carolina basketball teams. "They were up two points with two minutes left, and they ran out the clock."

The call for a vote came at 15 seconds after midnight, according to the clock on the clerk's computer.

Vitale, a Severna Park Republican, said she supports the bill but expressed worry that a ban on fly ash could allow it to be dumped at the county landfill in Millersville. She denied filibustering.

"I did not intend to keep a vote from happening," she said, adding that her cell phone clock showed the time was 11:58 p.m. when she stopped speaking from the dais.

Middlebrooks, a Severn Republican, said the purpose of the bill amounts to "taking our problems and passing them off to other counties or other states," he said.

The council, which tacked on a "sunset" provision Monday night that would end the ban after one year, will vote on the bill Oct. 1. County Executive John R. Leopold, a Republican, proposed the initial legislation in July after the discovery of polluted drinking water near Constellation Energy's dumping site in Gambrills, the BBSS Inc. abandoned mining operation.

Among the 30 people who testified on the bill, Constellation officials said its passage would cut the dumping capacity in Gambrills from five years to 18 months, potentially leading to higher utility prices. They said the company would be forced to place hundreds of thousands of tons of coal ash created at two coal energy plants in northern Anne Arundel County in trucks, rail cars or on barges to be dumped elsewhere.

Deliberation over the bill comes as the state's environmental agency is in negotiations with Constellation and BBSS over the cleanup of groundwater that, according to regulators, has been contaminated by cancer-causing metals leaching from the coal ash into the private wells. The bill would not halt operations at the Gambrills site.

The council's postponement of a vote sets up Oct. 1 as pivotal: That date also is the deadline for Constellation Energy and BBSS to reach an agreement with the Maryland Department of the Environment to clean up groundwater contamination and more securely store billions of pounds of fly ash already stored underground there - or face court action.

County officials have argued that bringing forth the bill has put pressure on the parties to hammer out an agreement that would satisfy affected residents.

Constellation officials announced Friday that they would stop dumping fly ash in Gambrills by Monday until they cleaned up the contaminated water and devised a system to contain leaching. This week, Constellation began trucking ash to three industrial landfills in Virginia, including one 130 miles from Gambrills, in Richmond.

Anne Arundel officials have been smarting over not being allowed a seat at the negotiating table; Constellation officials testified that the MDE has denied their requests to include the county.

Dillon, a Pasadena Republican, said the local government would lose influence over those deliberations if it passed the bill now.

MDE representatives did not testify at Monday's meeting, prompting Dillon to suggest a delay on the vote.

"Let's rake them over the coals for a little while," he said. "If we pass this bill [Monday], we won't see them."

Administration officials have called fly ash a public health threat that must be dealt with immediately, although they acknowledge that there are no requests to dump fly ash elsewhere in the county, and the Environmental Protection Agency has not designated fly ash as "hazardous" after seven years of research.

Friedman said that as federal regulations place tighter restrictions on coal plant emissions, the fly ash will be more heavily laden with dangerous metals. That, he said, makes it imperative for the county to act now.

"It's a direct and unequivocal response to a direct and unequivocal threat to public health," Friedman said.

Several testified in support of the county bill, referring to it as "an important first step."

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