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Proposed expansion at closed rubble landfill worries Bynum Run residents

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A recent article about Spencer Sand & Gravel Inc.'s landfill in Abingdon misstated the number of chemical drums illegally dumped on the property in 1980 that were labeled "trichloroethylene." Only one of the 75 drums was so labeled, according to a Harford County Health Department inspector's report.

The Sun regrets the error.

Pam Burns has lived in the shadow of the Spencer rubble fill for less than a year, and she is worried.

When she and her neighbors on Pouska Road moved into their homes in the Village of Bynum Run in Abingdon last fall, they thought the problems at the now-closed landfill behind their homes were a thing of the past -- buried like so much rubble in the huge mound of earth behind their homes.

But, they have learned, the owners of the landfill would like to expand their operation on the 84 acres they own behind Mrs. Burns' house.

Now she and her neighbors fear that the mound of earth will grow larger, not to mention increase the noise, dust, odors and truck traffic that bedeviled neighbors when the rubble fill was in full operation.

"We thought it was closed permanently," Mrs. Burns said recently. "Now we're concerned that the rubble fill will open again and that it might become contaminated again. We don't want anything to get into the water or the stream behind our

house."

Residents' fears stem from a recent permit from the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) allowing the landfill's owner, Spencer Sand & Gravel Inc., to resume surface mining on its land on the east side of Abingdon Road near Interstate 95.

Once a permit to dig a hole is granted, residents ask, can a permit for filling it with rubble be far away?

The track record of the rubble landfill, which the Spencer family has operated on the same site as its sand and gravel mining operation for about 15 years, is less than exemplary.

The landfill was cited by local and state environmental regulators for infractions ranging from illegal dumping to ground water contamination before it was shut down by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) nearly three years ago.

But residents' fears are premature, said Edward Dexter, chief of MDE's Solid Waste Compliance Division. He said the Spencer application to expand the rubble fill operation, which was filed in 1987, has been on hold since 1992, when the company's original rubble fill permit expired, and the landfill was forced to close.

He said the owners still have ground water problems to resolve and other work to do on the site of the existing landfill before the application for expansion can be moved back into MDE's active file.

Even then, Mr. Dexter said, the Spencer family may have to begin the rubble fill application process anew since both state and county laws regarding rubble fills have been tightened in recent years.

MDE doesn't regulate sand and gravel mining operations. That's the job of another state agency -- the Department of Natural Resources. It was DNR that gave the Spencer firm the go-ahead in September, contingent on Harford County zoning approval, to expand its surface mining on an additional 18 acres.

Harford zoning officials, however, didn't give their blessing, and the county and the Spencers landed in zoning court last month, debating whether the landowners have the right to expand their commercial operation in an area that has become increasingly suburban.

Development spurs issue

The Burns home, for instance, is one of more than 110 that have been approved for the Village of Bynum Run since the rubble fill closed in August 1992.

In all, more than 640 single-family homes have been built or approved for construction in the subdivisions immediately north, northeast and northwest of the Spencer property since 1990, said Arden Holdredge, Harford County's director of planning and zoning. "The majority of the people here aren't even aware of Spencer's history because they're so new to the area," said Nila Martin, a member of the Abingdon-Emmorton Community Planning Council who has been going door-to-door to inform her neighbors of the latest developments.

"It's become much more of an issue now that the area is being developed," said environmental attorney Jefferson Blomquist, one of the county's lawyers arguing against the mining expansion.

"It didn't have such an impact on human health or the quality of life then," he said of the time when the Spencers began mining decades ago.

In granting the surface mining permit to John W. Spencer Jr. in September, DNR said that Spencer Sand & Gravel could mine an additional 18 acres on the east side of Abingdon Road on the hTC condition that it was "in compliance with local zoning requirements."

County doesn't give blessing

But Harford County planning and zoning officials contend that under existing zoning laws, Spencer Sand & Gravel must apply for a "special exception" standing, which is required to expand a commercial venture in a residential zone.

The Spencers appealed that decision to the county's zoning hearing examiner.

Regardless of the outcome, the losing side is expected to appeal to the Harford County Council, which is the county's zoning board of appeals, dragging the battle on longer.

The Spencer family has owned about 150 acres on the east and west sides of Abingdon Road just north of Interstate 95 since the early 1940s, when it was a largely rural area.

In hearings before Harford County Hearing Examiner William Casey last month, the Spencers' attorneys argued that the family has been in business longer than the county has had a zoning code and that they are "intensifying," not expanding, a sand and gravel mining operation that has been going on for decades.

But the county contends that the Spencers' right to mine only extends to the approximately 11 acres they were mining before the neighborhood was rezoned "low-intensity residential."

James P. Nolan, attorney for the Spencer firm, has refused to comment on the case outside the courtroom. He said only that "the facts will come out at the hearings," which will resume in July.

Witnesses in court have said the family has been mining sand and gravel on their property for decades, selling it to builders, pavers, contractors and individuals.

In tandem with their mining business, the Spencers in later years began operating a private rubble landfill on both sides of the road, "reclaiming" or filling the excavated land with rubble. By law, a rubble fill can accept construction, demolition and land-clearing debris, including wood, concrete and tree stumps. It cannot accept household waste.

DNR officials note that of the 350 mining operations in the state, only a half-dozen also operate rubble landfills on the excavated land.

While state documents indicate that dumping at the Spencer site began in the late 1970s, the Spencers did not apply for a rubble fill permit until 1981. It wasn't granted by MDE until 1987. The five-year permit expired in August 1992.

An application for expansion had been made in the meantime, but the application was not approved. In denying the expansion and closing the landfill in 1992, MDE cited the Spencers for not producing a topographic survey showing how much rubble had been dumped on the property and whether it stretched outside the permitted area.

In fact, the closing was the culmination of years of problems at the Abingdon facility.

The Harford County Health Department noted illegal dumping on the site as early as 1980, when an inspector found 75 drums labeled "trichloroethylene" on the property.

Landfill's violations

In later years, state environmental health inspectors cited the landfill repeatedly for noncompliance with regulations: 42 times in 1989; 28 times in 1990; 37 times in 1991. In 1992, environmental inspectors made 20 visits to the site before the fill was closed in August.

Various infractions documented by Harford and the state over the years have included:

* Accepting illegal refuse, including industrial and commercial waste and household garbage.

* Ground water contamination, including trichloroethylene (TCE), a suspected carcinogen, in two on-site monitoring wells.

* Inadequate ground cover of the filled area.

* Underground fires.

* Inadequate sediment control and grading of slopes.

* Foul odors, dust and smoke.

* Illegal hours of operation.

* Operating without an approved grading permit and sediment control plan.

* Operating the landfill outside the limits of the permit.

In closing the rubble fill, MDE ordered the owners to immediately stop filling, to survey the overfilled area, to stabilize the rubble fill and to resolve the ground water contamination problem.

Mr. Dexter said recently that since 1992, odors due to "cracks" in the ground cover of the fill have subsided. New monitoring wells have been installed, and a topographic survey has been filed, which confirms that the company had overfilled its 11.5 permitted rubble fill acres by at least 7.5 acres.

But, he said, the ground water problem and "other operational issues remain unresolved." Until the site meets the state's environmental standards, he said, Spencer won't move out of Phase 3 of the five-part rubble-fill permit process, where its application has been put on hold.

The Spencer proposal to expand the rubble fill by 18 acres includes about 6 acres "on top of" the existing mound of rubble, Mr. Dexter said. About half of the other 12 acres are in an area already illegally filled with rubble, he said, and part of the land already has been excavated.

Mr. Nolan, the Spencer attorney, would not discuss the rubble fill and said only that remediation of the site "is progressing."

Mining is another matter

The Spencers' surface mining operation is another matter.

Edmon Larrimore, chief of the minerals, oil and gas division of DNR, said last week that the state cannot prevent Spencer from mining while the surface mining permit is being contested by the county.

"As far as we're concerned, they have met the requirements we said needed to be met," he said. "It is up to Harford County to enforce its zoning law and defend it in court."

DNR inspectors visit the Spencer site quarterly, Mr. Larrimore said, and have not reported any violations there in the last month.

The hearings will resume July 10.

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