Sisters Melva Abell and Mary Broadhurst ranted so long and loudly about the illegal trash transfer station in their St. Mary's neighborhood that they came to be known simply as "the crazy, pushy" women.
Their carping went on for seven years. There were complaints and phone calls to the county planning and zoning office, to the state Department of the Environment, piles of photographs, a diary recording the comings and goings of dump trucks, meetings with county commissioners and other officials, secret videotapes shot from a neighbor's attic, aerial photographs and many, many letters to state and local officials.
The crusade by the unlikely pair of self-styled environmental watchdogs finally brought results last week when the four family owners of a now-defunct trash business each pleaded guilty in St. Mary's County Circuit Court to one misdemeanor count of operating an illegal transfer station. They paid a total fine of $80,000, which state officials said would be earmarked for litter control and waste management in the county.
In addition, Albert W. Stevens, 67, his two sons and daughter-in-law each pleaded guilty to a similar state charge in Prince George's County and paid another $80,000 fine. Finally, the family's two companies pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges, agreeing to pay nearly $3.5 million in criminal fines and civil penalties.
Federal and state officials acknowledged last week that the case in St. Mary's largely began when Abell, 40, a church bookkeeper, and Broadhurst, 50, a contract specialist, became the eyes and ears of an informal group of four St. Mary's citizens who watched and took notes for seven years as St. Mary's Disposal Systems Inc. ran what was supposed to be a recycling center.
According to court documents, Stevens and his family, through the disposal firm, set up illegal transfer stations in St. Mary's and Prince George's where trash from Navy installations was dumped.
The trash then was transferred onto tractor-trailers and hauled to Virginia landfills, in violation of the company's contract with the Navy that required the material to be hauled to dumps in Maryland or to a transfer station in Washington.
"When I started this, I was a perfectly content housewife. It's not like I was frustrated and didn't have a life," Abell said. "This thing has taken away from my family life. It's not been an enjoyable experience.
"I've been called a zealot, crazy, pushy and told that I didn't know what I was talking about," she said. "I suppose that's the sweet part of this, being told that `Oh, gee, Melva, you were right after all.' "
Her sister agreed. "Yes, I'd like to say, `I told you so,' at the top of my lungs," Broadhurst said.
For years the sisters, along with Ken Hastings, chairman of the county's Solid Waste Advisory Committee, and Vernon Gray, a community preservationist, were unrelenting in their assertions that the purported recycling center was really an illegal transfer station. Gray said the issue first came to light in 1991 when a former employee of St. Mary's Disposal Systems disclosed it. The company had a conditional zoning permit for a recycling center, but neighbors became suspicious when they smelled trash.
Then Abell, who lives on St. Andrews Church Road across from the site, started noticing the regular comings and goings of dump trucks. Broadhurst, who lives on a hill less than half a mile away, could see the entire operation -- the dumping, the transfer to tractor-trailers -- from her driveway.
"We would say to county officials, `These people are violating the law.' And Melva and Mary and the other neighbors would complain about the odor of rotten garbage," Gray said.
Similar complaints from Prince George's residents about the Stevens operation there helped prompt a 2 1/2-year investigation by federal, state and local authorities, said Vaughn M. Bradley, a senior special agent from the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
"When you have citizens complaining about smelling trash and seeing trash, it becomes an environmental issue," Bradley said.
Gray and others say last week's court action underscored local and state government inaction.
"St. Mary's Disposal could not have conducted an illegal solid waste transfer station operation if the county government had really wanted to stop it," Gray said. "Everyone knew they were doing it, but no one would do anything about it."
Larry Pinto, a leader of the Community Preservation Coalition of St. Mary's, a citizens group, asked pointedly last week, "How come everybody that knew what was going on didn't do anything? How come the system didn't work? Why didn't MDE [state Department of the Environment] come down on St. Mary's Disposal Systems and AW Stevens? They certainly had the evidence to do so."
Gray, Abell, Broadhurst and others have criticized the county's Planning and Zoning Department for failing to stop St. Mary's Disposal Systems.
"I've heard that criticism before. I'm discouraged by it and yet I understand it," said Jon Grimm, director of planning and zoning. He said his department was faulted by both sides in the dispute.
"On the one hand, those citizens who were subjected to nuisances at the site lodged complaints that we didn't do enough," Grimm said. "On the other hand, businesses lodged complaints that we were harassing them and we were there too often."
Grimm said half of the two-foot-high stack of zoning files in his department are "inspection reports on this case."
"We certainly pursued it," he said. "We were hampered by the lack of specificity in our own ordinance. It was a difficult case to administer from a zoning compliance perspective."
CAPTION: Sisters Mary Broadhurst, left, and Melva Abell, of St. Mary's County, helped trigger investigations leading to convictions of four local trash haulers.
CAPTION: Aerial photos of the transfer station operated by St. Mary's Disposal Systems Inc., whose owners pleaded guilty to operating an illegal transfer station and to federal fraud charges. They also will pay more than $3.5 million in fines.