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Environmentalists plan suit over Mirant Brandywine landfill

By Zoe Tillman
The Gazette
Thursday, January 7, 2010; PG21

Pollutant levels exceeding water-quality standards have been reported in groundwater around Brandywine in recent years, and a coalition of environmentalists claims the discharge from a landfill is to blame.

Accusing the landfill managers -- power company Mirant Mid-Atlantic and Mirant MD Ash Management of Atlanta -- of failing to prevent the slow discharge of toxic pollutants from the Brandywine Coal Combustion Waste Landfill, the coalition has notified Mirant that it plans to sue under the federal Clean Water Act.

A notice of the intent to file suit, issued Nov. 19, cites reports from the Maryland Department of the Environment that high levels of cadmium, iron, aluminum and other waste products were found in groundwater beneath the landfill.

The notice alleges these pollutants not only pose a risk to the wildlife and ecosystem of nearby Mattaponi Creek and the waterways it feeds but also could contaminate wells and lead to health problems in nearby communities.

The environmentalists add that they have no documented proof of effects of alleged seepage on the environment or the human population.

Mirant spokeswoman Misty Allen said the company has always followed the guidelines set up in its discharge permits. She declined to comment on the specifics of the allegations, citing the pending legal action.

The company has until Jan. 19, 60 days after the notice was filed, to appease the coalition or face a lawsuit under the guidelines of the Clean Water Act, a 1972 federal statute designed to protect waterways from pollution.

"The state conducted its own report that actually discloses that there's a contamination problem at this site," said Fred Tutman of Patuxent Riverkeeper, one of the four parties threatening legal action against Mirant. "We know that it's getting into the groundwater."

Patuxent Riverkeeper has teamed up with environmental groups Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. Attorneys from the District-based Environmental Integrity Project and the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Maryland School of Law intend to act as co-counsels for the coalition.

Lawyer Jennifer Peterson of the Environmental Integrity Project said the coalition's goals are testing to determine the extent of any discharge and its effects, a full cleanup of pollutants and a change in Mirant's practices to prevent future discharge.

If Mirant is found in violation of the Clean Water Act, it could also face financial penalties, Peterson said.

The landfill, which covers several hundred acres, was built in 1971, and Mirant purchased it in 2000, Allen said.

Waste, usually ash from coal burned at the company's Chalk Point Generating Plant in Aquasco, is disposed of at the Brandywine site, Allen said. The landfill has one 30-acre active disposal site, known as a "cell," that is lined with a membrane to prevent pollutants from seeping out, she said.

But Peterson said environmentalists think that four unlined, inactive sites -- which Allen said date to the landfill's origin and predate Mirant's ownership -- are responsible for much of the problem.

"Waste that has been disposed of improperly can have impacts for hundreds of years," she said. "This isn't a case where, 'Okay, it's inactive, the problem is gone.' "

According to a 2008 report by the Maryland Department of the Environment, water monitoring sites for the four inactive cells "show high levels [of certain pollutants] exceeding many of the primary or secondary Water Quality Standards."

Department spokeswoman Dawn Stoltzfus confirmed that department officials "are aware of water-quality concerns" at the Brandywine site but declined to comment further, citing an investigation. She said the agency enacted stricter regulations on such sites in December 2008.

Mirant operates the landfill under a special permit granted by Prince George's County's planning department and approved by the district council, which allows the company to operate in an otherwise residential area, according to Jimi Jones, supervisor of the department's zoning section.

Mirant's permit, which hinges on guarantees that its operation does not harm the surrounding communities, was renewed in July 2007 for 15 years. At that time, Jones said, his office was not aware of water-quality issues.

Starting this month, the coalition plans outreach events to educate communities about the issues surrounding the landfill as well as gauge whether residents have experienced harm, said Kelly Canavan, president of the Accokeek, Mattawoman, Piscataway Creeks Communities Council.

"It's sort of easy to ignore or forget about it, because you don't see it," she said, referring to the alleged slow discharge of pollutants into groundwater over time.

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