Thomas D. McKewen, a materials recovery and waste management expert who was the founding director of Maryland Environmental Service, died June 13 of congestive heart failure at his home in Ashburn, Va. The former Towson resident was 86.
"I had been hearing that he was a person with a lot of ability and had an understanding of the environmental work we were doing," said former Gov. Marvin J. Mandel, who appointed Mr. McKewen as director of the state agency. "I spoke with him, and he impressed me. He got in there and did the job, and he did it well."
"Tom was just a wonderful guy and a good engineer," said John R. Griffin, former state secretary of natural resources, who is now Gov. Martin O'Malley's chief of staff.
"He was a man of broad interests, and I'd describe him as a man for all seasons. He had a dry sense of humor, and people liked and enjoyed Tom," he said. "He had a friendly disposition and was always helpful."
The son of Thomas Patrick McKewen, a stationary engineer and head of maintenance at the Koppers Co., and Anna Elizabeth Duvall McKewen, a homemaker, Thomas Donald McKewen was born in Baltimore and raised in the city's Westport neighborhood.
After graduating from Polytechnic Institute in 1946, he served in the Army for a year. He earned a bachelor's degree in engineering in 1951 from the Johns Hopkins University and a master's degree in engineering, also from Hopkins, in 1952.
From 1952 until 1970, he was assistant commissioner for environmental programs for the Maryland Department of Health, where he was responsible for state regulatory activities in water supply, municipal wastewater, air quality, solid waste and other environmental programs.
In 1970, Mr. Mandel appointed Mr. McKewen as the founding director of the newly created Maryland Environmental Service, which later operated the Hawkins Point hazardous-waste landfill and more than 100 water supply, wastewater and solid-waste treatment plants across the state.
During his tenure, Mr. McKewen turned the fledgling organization, which was the nation's first state-operated effort to handle waste disposal problems, into a $20 million-a-year operation.
He embraced many controversial and sensitive issues, including composting sludge, placing chemical and hazardous wastes in landfills, and designation of disposal areas for low-level radioactive material.
"He accomplished a great deal at MES," recalled Mr. Griffin. "In the early 1980s, there developed a solid-waste crisis for Baltimore City. Baltimore had been sending its trash to Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County landfills, who shut down their landfills to city trash."
Mayor William Donald Schaefer, Baltimore City Council President Walter S. Orlinsky, Baltimore County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson and Robert A. Pascal, who headed Anne Arundel County, met to resolve the crisis, said Mr. Griffin.
"Wally [Orlinsky] really pushed to have a mini-version of MES that would have more local control," said Mr. Griffin. "It was a very tense time, but Tom helped work it out, and it resulted in a solid-waste agreement."
Mr. McKewen oversaw the effort that led to the creation of the Hawkins Point hazardous-waste landfill, which was developed to take the tailings from the old Allied Chemical Corp. plant in the harbor that had produced chrome and was being demolished.
"It was the first such landfill permitted in the country under a new federal law," said Mr. Griffin.
"We have disposed or otherwise managed about 2 million tons of sludge or garbage," Mr. McKewen told The Evening Sun in an interview at the time of his retirement in 1983.
"Our growth has been in local governments. I'd like to think that this has not been the growth of somebody's bureaucratic turf," he said. "MES has demonstrated that there are major advantages of having a public agency that's not restricted to local political boundaries. I think its been a good blend of state and local government.
Dr. Torrey C. Brown, who died this year and had been secretary of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, said in 1983 when Mr. McKewen stepped down that it was a "major loss."
"The agency has become first-class in the field. … Everyone agrees it is one of the agencies in government that really works and has great responsibilities," Dr. Brown told The Evening Sun.
"It's been a fantastic experience," Mr. McKewen told the newspaper. "I don't think there's been any one in the country that's been able to try out a new institution and participate in a new technology [resource recovery]. I've enjoyed it so much."
From 1983 until retiring in 2008, Mr. McKewen worked as a consultant in the fields of wastewater and solid-waste processing management.
In 1988, Mr. McKewen was a founding partner in Medical Waste Associates Inc., which owned the region's biggest infectious-waste incinerator. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1994.
From 1968 to 1982, Mr. McKewen was a part-time lecturer in the graduate engineering program at the Johns Hopkins University.
Mr. McKewen was awarded the Arthur Sydney Bell Award, presented by the Chesapeake Water Pollution Control Association.
Mr. McKewen, who lived for years on Louise Avenue in Hamilton, moved to Severna Park in 1983 and six years later to Towson. For the last six years, he had been living at a retirement community in Ashburn.
He enjoyed writing fictional stories for his grandchildren, who became the characters in them. He was an Orioles fan.
"He also enjoyed a good argument," said a son, Darren P. McKewen of Vienna, Va.
Mr. McKewen was a former communicant of St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church in Northeast Baltimore.
A memorial Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. Friday at Christ the Redeemer Roman Catholic Church, 46833 Harry Byrd Highway, Sterling, Va.
In addition to his son, Mr. McKewen is survived by his wife of 61 years, the former Martina Smith; two other sons, Sean E. McKewen of Lonaconing and Brian T. McKewen of Easton; and six grandchildren. Another son, Kevin McKewen, died in 1986.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun