Groups plan suit, say ash dump polluted wetland

Power company targeted by Charles Co. residents

April 03, 2008|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN REPORTER

A power plant ash dump in Southern Maryland leaked toxic pollutants into a wetlands described by the state as one of the most important in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, according to a complaint filed yesterday.

In the legal notice, environmental groups and Charles County residents advised state and federal environmental agencies of their intent to sue the Mirant power company over runoff from the Faulkner fly ash landfill.

The groups assert that Mirant's own records show that the dump's runoff of toxic pollutants such as selenium and lead into Bowling Creek, which flows into Zekiah Swamp and the Wicomico River, violated water quality standards 12,677 times in 2006 and 2007.

"This place ought to be closed ... because it's adding poisons to the waters of the Wicomico River," said Les Marshall, a plaintiff who lives next to the river and said he has seen the aquatic vegetation and clams disappear.

Fly ash is waste, often laced with mercury, arsenic, chromium and other potential carcinogens, caught in the filters of coal-fired power plants.

The Morgantown power plant in Charles County, owned by the Atlanta-based Mirant company, produces about 150,000 tons of waste ash a year that is trucked to the 950-acre Faulkner landfill east of Route 301 and then buried. The dump has received millions of tons since it opened in 1970.

David Barney, a spokesman for Mirant, declined to comment on the notice, saying the company needs to study it.

Mirant in 2000 bought the landfill and power plant located a few miles south.

The former owner of both, the Potomac Electric Power Co., paid $975,000 in federal fines in 1995 after the landfill's supervisor was convicted of taking bribes and dumping pollution to adjacent Zekiah Swamp.

The protected wetlands are the largest hardwood swamp in Maryland. "Zekiah Swamp has been recognized by numerous authorities as one of the most significant ecological areas in the Chesapeake Bay watershed," according to a state Department of Natural Resources Web site.

The notice was filed on behalf of five Charles County residents by the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group based in Washington, to Mirant and state and federal environmental agencies.

Federal law requires notices to be given to state environmental agencies at least 60 days before a complaint is filed in court against an alleged polluter, to give the state time to take enforcement action.

Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former head of enforcement at the EPA, said that his organization's review of Mirant's reports, as well as independent testing, showed that contaminated rainwater is flowing out of the ash dump.

"They have three discharge points that are spitting toxic metals into the Zekiah Swamp without any permit, and that was outlawed by the Clean Water Act a long time ago," Schaeffer said.

He said he'd like the Maryland Department of the Environment to step in to enforce the violations.

After homeowners around the dump complained about foul-tasting water last year, the MDE asked Mirant to test the drinking water. But Mirant only tested two homes, and not for the heavy metals like selenium that would show whether the water supply had been contaminated by the ash, Schaeffer said.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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