Auditor probing land purchase

County bought land for trail, must clean up tons of waste

April 09, 2008|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Sun

The Anne Arundel County auditor is investigating why the county bought land in rural Odenton that officials knew as far back as 2002 had been a dump site for hundreds of tons of plastic waste, according to documents obtained by The Sun.

County officials acquired the property with state Open Space money in 2004 to extend the Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Trail and have spent more than $47,000 since last year cleaning up the mess - 230 tons so far. An additional $38,000 is needed to finish the job, according to a purchase order submitted last month.

Auditor Teresa Sutherland, in her March 24 review, said the county Department of Public Works failed to follow its own rules and conduct an environmental review of the site, potentially misleading the state Board of Public Works by saying the site was free of any hazards. Department Director Ron Bowen and his staff, she wrote, "were unable to tell us why."

Sutherland did not return a call for comment.

County Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat who represents the area, requested the audit after a constituent notified him about the waste in January. He said he was disappointed that county officials did not perform due diligence, and introduced legislation at Monday night's council meeting to increase oversight of land purchases and avoid a repeat of this episode.

"It is one incompetent decision after another," said Benoit, who is also a real estate lawyer. "In their zeal to get the trail built, every generally accepted practice in real estate was ignored."

By failing to do an environmental study, the county DPW put taxpayers on the hook for the cleanup, instead of trying to make an effort to find the company that dumped the trash and hold it accountable, Benoit said.

Neither County Executive John R. Leopold nor Recreation and Parks Director Frank Marzucco could comment on the audit because they had not seen it, said Marina Cooper, a spokeswoman for the administration.

Benoit gave fellow council members copies of the audit Monday night. The Sun obtained a copy through a Freedom of Information Act request.

It included notes from a March 2002 kickoff meeting with DPW officials for the trail project that refer to "dumping of plastic waste." Two years later, then-assistant parks director Jack Keene failed to pass on that information to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

In the application for funding from DNR's Program Open Space, Keene checked "no" in response to a question of whether the property had any environmental hazards.

Keene said overgrowth obscured much of the waste and he didn't realize it extended as far as it did from the existing rail bed. Because the county owned the rail bed, it already was responsible for removing any trash alongside it, he said, and he assumed that the removal costs would be minimal and included in the trail's cost.

By the time the trail construction contract was issued, he had moved into a different position and was unaware that the trash removal was not included in the contract specifications.

"I think this has turned out to be a major disappointment for the DPW and Recreation and Parks," said Keene, who said the property still has "significant natural resource value to the county in buffering the trail and the Little Patuxent River."

Keene, who retired in August as chief of planning and construction in recreation and parks, is now the trail program coordinator for the East Coast Greenway Alliance, a nonprofit working on a 3,000-mile urban trail system along the East Coast. The trail includes the trash-strewn section of the WB&A Trail in Anne Arundel County.

The section stretches from Strawberry Lake Way in Piney Orchard to Patuxent Road, linking Bowie to Odenton and connecting to the Odenton Road Hiker/Biker trail to provide access to the future Odenton Town Center.

According to a report by Environmental Resources Management, an Annapolis company hired by the county to inspect the site, the debris is "nonhazardous" and consists primarily of solid plastic wires, melted plastic material, plastic bags and powder. The waste that was removed in August was taken to the Millersville Landfill. The Maryland Department of the Environment is reviewing the county's clean-up plan.

Dennis Callahan, Leopold's chief administrative officer, said he had no idea the property was polluted until news reports surfaced in January about the dumping. As director of recreation and parks at the time of the sale, he was Keene's boss.

Callahan signed off on the sales agreement but acknowledged he never saw the property. He said the oversight process was DPW's responsibility. According to the audit, Bowen, director of public works, could not say when the department knew about the trash or why it did not follow procedures in asking for an environmental study. DPW also did not inform the county council that it had received a gift that would result in county expenditure, another procedural violation, according to the audit.

Chris Phipps, deputy director of the DPW, returned a call for Bowen and said department officials had not seen the audit and could not comment on it.

Benoit's proposed legislation would change the county code to require council approval and an environmental study for any potential land deal. The legislation also would require the county executive to certify that an environmental study was completed.

Although those things are required under various agency procedures and policies, they are not spelled out in the county code and do not have the force of law, he said.

Benoit said the county is lucky the site does not need more expensive remediation.

"I can't overstate how serious a mishap this was," he said.

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