Carroll environmental activists fear that the pending abolishment ofthe Department of Natural Resource Protection will diminish the county's environmental protection efforts and squander the abilities of the agency's director.

The year-old department is being disassembled, its components reassigned to four separate agencies, under a government reorganization plan unveiled last month by the County Commissioners.

The commissioners say the restructuring is intended to make environmental operations and planning more efficient.

The plan could bechanged by July 1, its effective date, and again within the following six months.

Environmental activists expressed concern that dividing functions -- particularly splitting recycling from other solid waste operations -- will hamper development of an effective, comprehensive solid waste management program.

Former Commissioner Jeff Griffith calls waste disposal the county's "biggest and toughest technicalchallenge" for the future.

Baltimore region counties and Frederick and Washington counties generally have a more centralized approach to waste disposal and environmental management than the one proposed by the commissioners (please see chart).

Activists also expressed disappointment that Natural Resource Protection Director James E. Slater, who boasts nearly 20 years' experience as a private-sector environmental consultant in the United States and abroad, no longer will be masterminding Carroll's evolving solid waste program.

"A lot of positive things have happened in the last year," said Jim Thomas, chairman of the Recycling Committee. "It's unfortunate it doesn't get time to gel."

The Environmental Affairs Advisory Board, appointed last year by the previous Board of Commissioners, is reserving comment until members can discuss details of the plan with the commissioners and offer advice. They plan to do so before July 1, member Frank Grabowski said. The board was not consulted about the plan.

"Obviouslythis is what the commissioners feel to be a more efficient way to address a costly set of problems," said Grabowski, a civil engineer andconservationist. "But they haven't had the time or opportunity to evaluate feedback."

Thomas says he hopes the plan will be changed before July 1, even though a six-month trial period follows.

"Once you get the momentum going, to backtrack is difficult," he said. "It doesn't happen in politics very often."

The commissioners reassigned the fledgling recycling program to the new Department of General Services, which will include such diverse functions as development review and vehicle maintenance; daily landfill operations to the Department of Public Works; and the solid waste financing fund to the Office of the Comptroller.

Slater will head the Office of Environmental Services, charged with administering water resources, wetlands, storm water management, landfill monitoring and landscape and reforestationprograms. The office will be under the new Department of Administrative Services, headed by Robert A. "Max" Bair, executive assistant to the commissioners.

The commissioners say Environmental Services will concentrate on complying with state and federal regulations, landfill closures and cell openings and environmental planning. They say that is where Slater's technical expertise best can be employed. Commissioner President Donald I. Dell said Environmental Services was placed under Bair's supervision so the commissioners could keep closer tabs on regulatory compliance issues.

Others view the changes as a regression.

"It sends a message of lowered concern for environmental issues," said Sue Ellen May of Eldersburg, secretary of Carroll Earth Care. "It was a brief fling, but now they're putting it on the back burner and going with the status quo."

League of Women Voters-Carroll chapter President Rosemary Hanger said dismantling DNRP appears"like a demotion. It's important the public believes the county is committed to environmental protection. As people become more environmentally aware, it's important to maintain momentum."

The commissioners say the department was performing below expectations. Commissioners Dell and Elmer C. Lippy Jr. contend that more emphasis has been placed on environmental issues by reassigning tasks and that landfill and recycling functions can be separated without detracting from waste-management efforts.

Recycling has been isolated so that a programcan be developed, then integrated into a comprehensive solid waste plan, Dell said.

"We've fine-tuned," he said. "We could make it work better."

Commissioner Julia W. Gouge said she is concerned aboutsplitting environmental programs "to the degree where we can't give them proper attention."

Dell said Slater was "spread too thin," handling landfill operations and recycling, structuring waste disposal fees and developing long-range plans.

"Nothing was getting full attention," he said. "It's not to criticize Jim. He was doing as much as he can."

Slater would not comment on the proposed changes or histenure.

Several who worked with DNRP say Slater has been strappedsince he was hired in May 1990.

"The Recycling Committee feels itwas an understaffing problem," said Thomas, the chairman. "Rather than deal with that issue, they did it in a peculiar way -- they slicedup the department."

Griffith, who supported hiring Slater, agreed, saying one strong advocate should coordinate environmental programs.

"We hired a person with international credentials," he said. "Hehas more experience than probably anyone in the county in environmental issues. He hasn't had a chance to get the job done. He never got the resources that were approved for him."

Requests for a water resource specialist, a surface water technician, an environmental review specialist and an environmental education specialist have gone unfilled, partly because of budget problems.

Griffith added that Slater is more experienced as a technician than as a manager.

"Give hima manager who's hard-nosed enough to go out and kick butt and make things happen," he recommended.

Some have speculated that Slater fell out of favor by suggesting politically unpopular ideas, such as involving county government in trash collection, raising landfill fees and assessing an annual charge on residences for waste disposal.

"Trash collection is a loaded issue," Thomas said. "Jim realized that changes were necessary that weren't going to be popular. He was willing to stick his neck out."

Slater's proposals disturbed municipal leaders, whose budgets and constituents would be affected by the fees.

"I don't know if we're shedding any tears over that one," Sykesville Mayor Lloyd R. Helt Jr. said of Slater's new assignment.

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