Representatives from about 22 grass-roots environmental groups across Maryland met for the first time yesterday to pool their knowledge and experience in the fight against polluting landfills, incinerators and rubble fills.
Group members say they are frequently outmatched in time and money when battling private waste companies and developers.
"We all have one common problem: the David and Goliath syndrome," said Bob Dillon of the Community Coalition of Harford County. "They can hire lots of lawyers and devote 26 hours a day to make sure they're going to get their dump."
The workshop, which drew about 42 people to Atholton High School in Columbia on a sunny Saturday, was organized by the Maryland Conservation Council and the Citizens for Responsible Waste Disposal, which formed three years ago to oppose a dump in Allegany County.
Participants had an opportunity to share war stories about battling harmful waste sites, raising money for legal actions and digging through government files for information. They also took more than a few swipes at the state Department of Environment for granting permits that don't prevent pollution and failing to inspect waste sites regularly.
"It seems like nobody at the state level can take all the pieces of the puzzle and see what the whole thing means. When it all comes together, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that you don't want to take 300 trucks a day through a rural town on a 2.7-acre site on a flood plain," said Tony Strnad, a member of a Frederick County citizens group formed to fight a controversial recycling center in Point of Rocks.
Group members spent most of the day-long workshop developing strategies to address their primary concerns: organizing, education, legislation and government regulations, and developing a statewide solid waste policy.
"Many problems aren't being addressed because small, independent citizens groups aren't effective," said Jesse Armstrong of the Frederick County-based Frederick Residents for Environmental Defense.
Workshop participants suggested hiring a full- or part-time staff member to work for environmental groups statewide in tracking legislation and fund raising.
"There's a tremendous base of financial support out there that hasn't been tapped yet," said Richard Klein, president of Community and Environmental Defense Services. "A typical group spends $10,000 to $15,000 fighting a waste facility."
Setting up computer data bases with information on toxic materials, environmental experts and general reference material would help groups scattered across the state wage effective battles against projects in their areas, participants said.
To strengthen their collective position, participants urged groups to take their concerns about proposed waste facilities to lawmakers across the state, not just those who represent their district.
"If one group complains about a landfill in Somerset County, it's not going to make a difference," said Anneke Davis of the Maryland Conservation Council. "If we are part of a group that opposes the landfill regulations, and they hear that all at once, it will make a difference."
Members of the Harford County-based Mason Dixon Safe Water Awareness Team put the workshop's objective into action even before the meeting was over.
The group is fighting a sludge-drying operation in Whiteford that is leaking high levels of aluminum, copper and toxic heavy metals into the ground water. They plan to file a lawsuit against the operator and need someone to scientifically assess the operation's risks to human health and the environment.
Mary Martello had the name of a qualified expert before she left yesterday's workshop.
"I think we're going to find a lot of help here through networking," she said. "It can help us become more powerful and empower others."