Under threat of a lawsuit from state regulators, Constellation Energy Corp. said yesterday that it will stop dumping fly ash from coal at a mine in Anne Arundel County while it negotiates and carries out a plan to clean up neighbors' contaminated drinking water.
By Monday, Constellation will no longer drop off truckloads of fly ash, a byproduct of its coal-fired plants, at an 80-acre site in Gambrills owned by BBSS Inc., said Rob Gould, a Constellation spokesman, but he declined to say where it would deposit the debris instead.
"It's an action that we believe is appropriate at this time," Gould said.
The announcement came the same day that the Maryland Department of the Environment released details of what BBSS and Constellation needed to do to be in compliance. Those requirements include providing public water or digging new wells for neighbors of the dump site, and halting operations until the companies properly line the mining area to prevent further leakage of cancer-causing metals into aquifers that supply private well water.
The proposed consent decree would also force the two companies to add measures to clean up the groundwater and monitor it.
If BBSS and Constellation don't reach a deal with the state by the Oct. 1 deadline, the MDE has said it will take both to court.
MDE officials reiterated that BBSS will be charged an unspecified, "significant" fine for the alleged violations of the mining permits and water pollution control laws.
Robert Ballinger, an MDE spokesman, declined to comment on Constellation's decision or the negotiations.
"We're a regulatory agency, and we've ordered them to do certain things," he said. "We are just very strongly enforcing the environmental laws and trying to negotiate with them a consent decree to alleviate the problems there and to make sure that public health and the environment are protected."
Rob Scrivener, vice president for the BBSS, said in a statement of Constellation's actions: "We're working closely with Constellation Energy on this, and we agree that it's the right thing to do right now."
Anne Arundel County officials, whose study showing high levels of contaminants in private wells in Gambrills and Crofton pressured the state to act step in, said Constellation's actions show the utility company acknowledges the seriousness of the health problem.
"The jury is still out on whether the protections they envision for the consent agreement prove to be as porous as the soil," County Executive John R. Leopold said. "There's been some serious disagreement about the performance of these liners."
Constellation has disposed of 3.8 million tons of fly ash at the Gambrills site between 1995 and 2006, according to a Department of Natural Resources study released in June. By the end of 2008, the utility company plans to dump between 200,000 and 400,000 tons at the site, the report said.
The news from Constellation and the MDE could affect the thinking of the County Council, which on Monday will consider legislation to ban other fly-ash dumps from opening in Anne Arundel. Council members had complained this week that they had been poorly informed about the talks among the MDE, Constellation and the BBSS.
At that same meeting, county Health Officer Frances B. Phillips urged the council to pass the bill regardless of the negotiations.
"I am not confident that a consent order will be satisfactory to protect all areas of the county," Phillips said Tuesday. "The way to protect county residents is this legislation."
An eight-month study conducted by her department found contamination in 23 of 83 private wells tested near the deposit site; each well in the community showed the metals cadmium and thallium at levels as high as three times the maximum standard for safe drinking. According to the health department, cadmium can cause kidney damage and weaken bones; thallium can cause temporary hair loss and vomiting and affect the nervous system.
Records show that Constellation was aware as early as 1998 of elevated sulfate concentrations in the groundwater beyond the perimeter. While not shown to have significant health effects, sulfates can be a prime indicator of coal ash leaks.
Leopold proposed the emergency bill in July and asked MDE Secretary Shari T. Wilson to classify combustion ash as a hazardous waste. Yesterday, he reiterated his call for a statewide prohibition of fly ash.
"The legislation would not be before the council unless the state and federal government had been lax in its enforcement," he said. "We don't know the full extent of the contamination. It's a far broader concern than to the immediate families identified to date."
has agreed to pay for extending county water service to homeowners on Summerfield Road, a secluded area where the contamination is most prominent. The utility has been offering bottled water to affected residents since it detected elevated concentrations of the potentially cancer-causing metals.
Harold Thompson, who lives in the affected area on Summerfield Road, called yesterday's announcement "fantastic." He's had to replace his hot water tank three times, and his current tank is corroded, too.
"I don't know what this water could be doing to us, as far as health concerns," Thompson said. "I know the plumbing doesn't last as long as it used to. I'm feeling good that the state is doing something about it."
Sun reporter Bradley Olson contributed to this article.