By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
Maryland officials ordered Constellation Energy and the owner of a local dumpsite yesterday to pay a $1 million penalty and clean up groundwater contaminated by fly ash dumping in Anne Arundel County.
The order is an outgrowth of negotiations that the state, Constellation and BBSS Inc., owner of the 80-acre dumpsite in Gambrills where 4.5 million tons of fly ash has been dumped, have engaged in since the contamination was discovered a year ago.
State officials said the order is proof of their vigilance against companies that violate health and environmental laws. But Anne Arundel officials and residents who have called for action against the dumping for months criticized the order as too little, too late.
"It's a joke. A million dollars is nothing to a company like Constellation -- a drop in the bucket," said Torrey Jacobsen Jr., president of the Greater Crofton Council, an umbrella group of local homeowners associations in the area of the contamination. "They polluted our waters, our wells, and this is all the state does?"
Constellation has been under increasing public pressure to clean up the contamination that its Glen Burnie-based coal-burning operation has caused in the Gambrills area.
For a year, residents of about a dozen households have had to rely on bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing their teeth because their well water was found to be contaminated with arsenic and other metals.
In response to residents' frustrations and a threat by the county to ban fly ash dumping in Anne Arundel, Constellation volunteered last week to stop dumping the material at the Gambrills site temporarily.
Yesterday's order requires Constellation and BBSS Inc. to submit a plan within 60 days to clean up the groundwater, provide alternative water sources for affected residents and continue monitoring the area's groundwater.
A statement by the Maryland Department of the Environment said the "significant" penalty demonstrates the agency's commitment to protect the state's groundwater and health of its citizens.
Anne Arundel leaders, who have accused state officials and the two companies of ignoring early warning signs at the dumpsite and being slow to act when contamination was found, took issue with several points in the order.
The order requires 40 homes to be hooked up to public water or be given alternative water sources because of the contamination. But county officials contend that at least 45 homes are affected.
In recent meetings, Constellation has outlined a strategy for cleaning the groundwater and resuming dumping at the Gambrills site. County leaders have called the cleanup strategy unproven and possibly ineffective. And although the contamination is limited to wells in Gambrills, residents in Crofton and other surrounding towns fear that it will soon spread to them.
"Sure, the consent decree deals with Gambrills now, but who's going to pay for public water hookups when it spreads to Millersville or Crownsville?" said County Council member Jamie Benoit (D-Odenton). "It doesn't sound like the county and residents' interests were protected at all."
County Executive John R. Leopold (R) said he is frustrated, too.
The state Environment Department "has kept us out of the loop the whole way through," said Leopold, who added that his request to be included in the negotiations that led to the order was rejected.
Leopold proposed a ban on future fly ash dumpsites that the County Council approved last night as a one-year moratorium.
Although no illness has been proved to be caused by the contamination, county officials are pushing for a comprehensive health assessment to be conducted on affected residents. Leopold and others have also raised questions about the health effects of dust from fly ash, which state environmental officials said they are investigating.
Yesterday's order also requires that Constellation submit plans to the state for how it will clean up the groundwater and improve its contamination prevention features at the Gambrills site before it can resume dumping there.
For its part, the Environment Department has formed a panel to reexamine its fly ash disposal regulations.