As Maryland's environmental agency tries to broker a deal over the disposal of billions of pounds of coal ash in Gambrills, an internal panel is quietly working to create standards that would surpass those of the federal government and many states.
Stephen L. Pattison, assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, said a panel of regulators was assembled last month to begin considering new rules, fueled by the discovery of cancer-causing metals in 23 private drinking wells near the fly-ash disposal site operated by BBSS Inc.
The state does not intend to pursue an outright ban on fly-ash disposal in Maryland, though Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold has called for such a ban. Pattison said the regulations, which could be instituted without legislative approval, might be in effect by the year's end.
"There's a strong interest in what's going on in Gambrills," Pattison said Wednesday. "The lesson learned is: We need to have a much stronger regulatory program."
The panel met Tuesday with representatives of utility companies that operate coal-fired power plants, including Constellation Energy Group and Mirant Corp., Pattison said. It also met with an environmentalist this month, he said, and will weigh input from other "stakeholders."
Pattison said he has consulted with Anne Arundel's health officer, but no county officials are serving on the panel.
No rules have been drafted, said Pattison, a former environmental compliance manager for Constellation. But an MDE official who spoke at a community meeting on fly ash Tuesday night in Gambrills said the regulations would institute safeguards used at landfills.
"I can't change history, but we are committed as a department to install new regulations," Jay G. Sakai, director of the Water Management Administration of the MDE, told more than 100 people. "Is that shutting the barn door after horse is out? Yes, it is."
At the meeting organized by the grass-roots group Crofton First, community leaders expressed concern that the MDE has not performed air-quality tests around the Gambrills dumping site since it opened in 1995. Residents said the ash accumulates on their houses and cars and gets onto their carpets.
"We are becoming an experiment in this environmental dumping of this material," said Philip Calhoun of Crofton.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has studied the effects of fly ash for more than 20 years and found it, according to its Web site, to be of "beneficial use to the environment."
State regulators have concurred in allowing the use of ash in mine-reclamation projects, such as on the 80-acre BBSS site that opened in 1995.
But state officials have had a change in heart over the health risks of fly ash since the discovery of the contaminated wells in Gambrills and the public outcry over the MDE's perceived lack of enforcement.
Last month, the department issued a consent decree calling on BBSS to clean up groundwater and prevent the further leaching of contaminants into aquifers. The agency has ordered BBSS and Constellation, which produces the fly ash at two coal-fired power plants in northern Anne Arundel, to reach an agreement on the terms by Monday. Pattison said he has no role in those talks.
Under threat of a lawsuit by the state, Constellation temporarily stopped dumping last week until it and BBSS clean up the fly ash and install new liners to prevent further leaching into several aquifers. They repeated that they have complied with all state regulations and that there is no conclusive evidence of the harmful effects of fly ash.
Constellation, which has dumped nearly 8 billion pounds of fly ash at the Gambrills site, is also seeking to expedite the delivery of public water to residents living most closely to the buried fly ash, on Summerfield Road.
By the end of the week, officials said, the utility company will begin trucking in clean water and piping it into several residences on well systems, replacing the cases of bottled water the company has been dropping off for a year. That will continue until Constellation hooks them up to the public water system.
Leopold, a Republican who has introduced a bill to ban dumping of fly ash in Anne Arundel, called the effort to create more stringent regulation of fly ash "welcome." But he again criticized the O'Malley administration for not involving the county in the discussions.
"Just as the state has precluded county involvement in the negotiations, the state has precluded the county's involvement in drafting new regulations," Leopold said Wednesday. "That is unfortunate and not helpful."
Leopold said he will seek to eliminate a loophole in his fly-ash ban legislation, offering an amendment to prohibit dumping such ash at rubble landfills.
Michael Lofton, president of the Harwood Civic Association and a former Anne Arundel economic development chief, pointed out the exception to county officials at the meeting Tuesday.
"If we are going to do it, I want to do it right and make it airtight," Leopold said after conferring with county lawyers.