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Maryland's "air head" retires today


Smoldering garbage dumps, belching smokestacks and choking urban smog greeted George P. Ferreri when he first began fighting air pollution in Maryland more than three decades ago.

The burly, bespectacled chemical engineer from Brooklyn, N.Y., -- who can (and does) cuss a blue streak -- put out the foul-smelling dump fires long ago, but not without a court fight or two.

And last winter, one of the state's last factory plumes vanished when Bethlehem Steel Corp. shut down its smoky coke ovens at Sparrows Point -- again, when threatened with a court fight.

Along the way, the combative Mr. Ferreri has braved state legislators' ire and threats to have him fired as director of the Air Management Administration, Maryland's chief regulator of air quality.

He has taken on everyone from Detroit's car makers to Eastern Shore farmers, trying to get them to change their polluting ways.

The air is visibly clearer now, and cars and industry are cleaner, thanks in large part to federal and state regulation.

Mr. Ferreri retires today after 20 years as Maryland's "air head," as he sometimes jokingly calls himself.

He is credited with winning many battles, but the war is not over.

Last week, for example, Mr. Ferreri presided over a rowdy public meeting on a proposed soil "recycling" plant in the Rosedale area of eastern Baltimore County. About 600 angry residents, fearful of being harmed by contaminants in the dirt, turned out in protest.

Hecklers heaped abuse on him for even considering the plant. "We know where Ferreri lives!" one of them shouted.

Taking the heat is part of a job that in some ways has become more difficult over the years, Mr. Ferreri says. "Fumes and visible emissions were easy. Now the stuff is a little more complex and sophisticated. We have to be smarter."

Mr. Ferreri was interviewed last week while packing to leave his office at the Maryland Department of the Environment. The boxes of papers and plaques held 33 years with the state.

He reached into a box and pulled out a pelt of one of the state's polluters -- a dark, curved piece of iron work bearing the label "Montgomery County incinerator, December 1975." It was given to him when the old trash burner was torn down.

"This one was smoking like a pipe," he recalls. "It was a dog from the beginning, and we made them shut it down."

In recent years, Mr. Ferreri has found himself doing battle as often as not with citizens' groups opposed to new factories or incinerators in their back yards.

One of the worst struggles has been, ironically enough, over HTC plans to build a new waste-to-energy incinerator in Montgomery County. Mr. Ferreri has been to court, this time as a defendant, for giving the project a green light.

Things did seem simpler when Mr. Ferreri took over in 1972 as chief of the state's Air Quality Division. There was a new federal Clean Air Act, and his predecessor had just drawn up Maryland's plan for meeting a federal mandate to eliminate urban smog.

Twenty years later, that goal remains elusive. The Clean Air Act has been revised twice by Congress, but ground-level ozone pollution, better known as smog, still plagues the nation.

Baltimore has the sixth worst ozone levels among the nation's urban areas, the Environmental Protection Agency reports. The 1990 rewrite of the Clean Air Act gives the state until 2005 to cleanse the Baltimore area.

"I don't think we recognized the severity of the problem," Mr. Ferreri says.

Representatives of industry, many of whom turned out for Mr. Ferreri's retirement dinner in Annapolis this month, say he was no pushover.

"If anybody was ever under the illusion that George was in bed with industry, they never heard his private conversations," says Robert Smith, a Baltimore attorney who frequently represents industry on air pollution issues.

After being fined and taken to court, Beth Steel turned off its coke ovens, which were leaking 1,350 tons of soot and dust into Baltimore's air each year, along with 300 tons of benzene.

Mr. Ferreri says he takes no satisfaction in seeing the ovens go cold, because it cost 400 workers their jobs, probably for good. The company has no plans to rebuild the ovens.

"Those coke ovens were just beyond repair," Mr. Ferreri says, and Beth Steel was "putting Band-Aids on them when they needed major surgery."

Not all environmentalists are Ferreri fans; some question whether he and the state have been tough on polluters.

Regulation has been "less aggressive than I would have liked," says Macy Nelson, a lawyer for the Maryland Waste Coalition, a grass-roots environmental group. "We prodded them to take action."

Jane Hunter, president of the Sugarloaf Citizens Association, which has been fighting the state's decision to permit the waste-to-energy incinerator in rural western Montgomery County, contends that Mr. Ferreri and his staff have virtually ignored community concerns.

Mr. Ferreri got toxic air pollution regulations developed in the late 1980s, which have been used to force drastic reductions in caustic and cancer-causing emissions in heavily industrial South Baltimore.

He cites those rules as one of his prime accomplishments, noting that they are tougher in many respects than federal law requires.

Now, at 64, Mr. Ferreri has decided it is time for younger souls to take the beatings from aggrieved industry and outraged citizens. He may do a little work for EPA, he says, and he intends to spend more time at his home on the Wye River and on his boat, fishing in the Chesapeake Bay.

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