O'Malley veto assailed

Leopold attacks governor for blocking Arundel ash-probe funds

May 23, 2008|By Steven Stanek and Justin Fenton | Steven Stanek and Justin Fenton,Sun Reporters

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold sharply criticized Gov. Martin O'Malley yesterday for striking down a bill that would have required the state to reimburse the county for a $100,000 investigation that found cancer-causing metals in private wells in Gambrills, calling the governor's veto an "offensive and irresponsible anti-environment action."

The veto - O'Malley's only one among 745 bills this year - was a stunning defeat for county officials, whose eight-month investigation helped persuade the Maryland Department of the Environment last summer to fine Constellation Energy and the operator of the 80-acre site $1 million and ordered them to clean up fly ash contamination.

Leopold said he would seek to have the utility company foot the bill.

"The state knew for years that the fly ash that Constellation Energy was dumping in Gambrills was contaminating the water of nearby homeowners, but if it were not for the well testing by the Anne Arundel County Health Department, the fly ash could very well be continuing to be deposited today," said Leopold, a Republican. "The governor's veto sends a chilling message to local governments that they should not be equal partners in the vital effort to protect people's health."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Friday's Metro section incorrectly reported the amount of fly ash dumped at an unlined gravel pit by Baltimore Gas & Electric's Brandon Shore plant over the past 12 years. The plant has deposited about 800,000 tons of the waste in the pit each year. The reference repeated errors previously made on editions of Oct. 2 and Nov. 30, 2007.
The Sun regrets the error.

The Sun reported last August that MDE was aware of elevated sulfate concentrations - an indicator of possible combustion ash contamination - near the BBSS mining site as far back as 1998 and failed to fully evaluate the potential for harmful environmental effects.

The county Health Department later detected the metals in late 2006.

O'Malley said yesterday that he vetoed the bill Wednesday because it applied only to Anne Arundel County and could set a precedent for county governments to tap into state funds in certain cases.

The Democratic governor and other elected officials said they supported the county's efforts to get the money from Constellation.

"I'm sure if there's an opportunity to recover from the polluter, we'll make sure we attempt to do that," O'Malley said.

Constellation is also facing a lawsuit from a Gambrills resident, Gayle K. Queen, who filed a complaint in Baltimore Circuit Court last fall claiming that her husband, David, died of kidney failure last year after drinking water laced with lead, arsenic and other pollutants associated with "fly ash."

Her suit seeks to represent dozens of local residents in a class-action lawsuit that would make Constellation Energy pay unspecified damages for personal injuries and loss of property values.

A spokesman, Kevin Thornton, said the company would not comment on Leopold's remarks.

"We have from the very start said that our primary concern is protecting the health and well-being of the residents of Anne Arundel County, and that has not changed from the start," Thornton said. "We are working to meet all requirements of the consent decree issued by the Maryland Department of the Environment, and we're moving forward with the issue."

For 12 years until last fall, Baltimore Gas & Electric, a subsidiary of Constellation, dumped billions of tons of waste ash from its Brandon Shores coal-fired power plant into an unlined former gravel mine pit owned by BBSS Inc., not far from a few dozen homes.

In May 2004, BGE and the site operators agreed to install a groundwater remediation system, which resulted in decreasing levels of sulfates in the areas close to the pits - but not beyond the pits, where concentrations were increasing, records show.

County tests in the fall of 2006 found that 23 wells in the area tested positive for dangerous metals such as arsenic, cadmium and thallium, all components of waste ash from smokestacks.

MDE said last fall that it would be investigating all 28 known coal fly-ash waste sites across Maryland to see if contaminants are leaking into underground streams and drinking water.

The MDE has also drafted regulations to require liners under all new ash dumps statewide and more testing of groundwater.

At Leopold's request, county delegates drew up a bill this year seeking to take the $100,000 reimbursement from the fine levied on Constellation Energy. The bill had passed through the House unanimously and cleared the Senate 45 to 1.

Del. James King, a Gambrills Republican who co-sponsored the reimbursement legislation, said he fears that county taxpayers are going to get stuck with the bill for oversight.

"If the county ends up not getting reimbursed ... the individuals whose wells were contaminated are the ones who end up paying for this," he said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said he understood O'Malley's reluctance to establish a state policy precedent on the back of one issue and defended the O'Malley administration's environmental record.

"The idea that they're not concerned about the environment is not one that will gain much traction," Busch said.

County Attorney Jonathan A. Hodgson said he would approach Constellation Energy before lodging legal action against the company.

"I am an optimistic person," Hodgson said. "It may be that they will see the merits of this issue ... and pay us the money."

steven.stanek@baltsun.com

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

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