Utility fined over fly ash

Constellation Energy, Arundel dump owner get $1 million penalty

October 02, 2007|By Tom Pelton and Phillip McGowan | Tom Pelton and Phillip McGowan,Sun reporters

In the biggest fine the state has levied on a polluter in at least seven years, Maryland slapped a $1 million penalty yesterday on Constellation Energy and the operator of its fly ash dump site in Anne Arundel County for contaminating drinking water.

The state's largest power company and BBSS Inc. agreed as part of the negotiated settlement to clean up the ground water where regulators say cancer-causing metals have seeped into private wells. BBSS owns the former gravel mines in Gambrills where Constellation has dumped about 8 billion pounds of ash from two coal-burning power plants since 1995.

Constellation, which recently stopped using the site and temporarily connected six homes to the county's public water system, will provide permanent hookups for 40 homes whose wells might be polluted. It must install new environmental controls at BBSS before dumping can resume.

"There is no more important natural resource than ground water, with one-third of Marylanders relying on it for drinking," said Shari T. Wilson, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment. "Cases like this are very significant in terms of public health impact, so it warrants the highest type of fine."

Though state and local officials don't know the scope and severity of the pollution, Constellation officials said yesterday that they are confident they can meet the terms of the consent decree.

"Our commitment to MDE and to the residents of Anne Arundel County [is] to aggressively take the right steps to determine the cause of these issues and to resolve these issues," said Rob Gould, a spokesman for Constellation. "It's something we take seriously, and it's the right thing to do."

A BBSS representative could not be reached for comment.

Yesterday's agreement was struck a day before a threatened lawsuit by the state environmental agency and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler.

"Other polluters have to recognize that they will be held accountable and assessed large fines when they are responsible for polluting and potentially endangering the health of the drinking water of the citizens of Maryland," Gansler said. "Because of the fly ash leaking into the wells, people were drinking water that was unhealthy and dangerous and contaminated."

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, who brought the issue to the fore on July 31 by calling for a ban of future fly-ash dumps, questioned the companies' ability to meet the terms of the consent decree. Constellation has known about the leaching since 1998 and kept dumping, he said yesterday.

"Their track record does not augur well for the success of that plan," Leopold said. "Their track record is one of consistent violations of our state and environmental laws. The most effective plan today, given the history of these environmental law violations, is to prohibit the continued disposition of fly ash, especially in porous sand and gravel sites."

One-year ban

The county executive said his emergency legislation is the only effective countermeasure to what he considers "a public health emergency." The County Council voted 6-0 last night on an amended version, which limits the prohibition to one year. It would not affect dumping at BBSS.

Leopold, a Republican, said the agreement also fails to address homeowners' concerns about dust and air pollution. State officials, who announced yesterday that they are investigating those claims about film-covered cars and dusty carpets, have acknowledged they have not tested the air quality at the BBSS site since the first disposal of fly ash.

Though the county raised the issue in August, the agency responded to its first formal air-quality complaint related to the fly ash on Friday.

"It's been a mess, with that ash getting all over our house and windows," said Martha Jenkins, a retired cook who has lived on Summerfield Road, which borders the dump site, all of her 86 years.

The 80-acre dump opened in 1995 after another ash-disposal site used by BGE in the Solley area of northern Anne Arundel County was closed due to neighborhood complaints about contaminated air and water.

State records show that, as early as 1998, BGE detected elevated concentrations of sulfates - an indicator of coal ash leaks - in ground water beyond the perimeter of the Gambrills dump site. The state knew about the pollution but allowed BGE to continue its dumping.

Last October, the county launched a 10-month investigation into the extent of the pollution in the surrounding neighborhoods. It found 23 of 83 wells tested positive for dangerous metals such as arsenic, cadmium and thallium - all components of fly ash.

Virginia landfills

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