Neighborhood cleanup

The Baltimore Sun

For years, Harry Jennings and his neighbors on Summerfield Road put up with bad-tasting, corrosive water that ate through plumbing and ruined appliances. They also endured a dark, gritty dust wafting in the wind that would coat their cars and clothes and even stain the outside of their homes.

"When the leaves weren't on the trees in winter, it would blow right through the woods," recalls Jennings, a truck driver who has lived all his 60 years in the wooded enclave off Route 3 in Gambrills.

The culprit, they suspected, was a sand and gravel pit where trucks daily dumped tons of ash produced by the Brandon Shores coal-fired power plant in Pasadena, which is owned by Constellation Energy Group.

Now, thanks to a $45 million settlement of a lawsuit brought by the residents, Constellation has pledged to connect Jennings' and 83 other homes in the Gambrills area to public water, replacing their contaminated household wells. The company also agreed to clean up the gravel pit and another one nearby and to set aside $9.5 million to compensate more than 200 residents for any harm to their health or property that might have resulted from exposure to the toxic substances in the ash.

The settlement, announced late last week, is still subject to approval by Baltimore Circuit Court, where the residents filed a lawsuit last November seeking damages from Constellation for personal injury and loss of property value.

Constellation spokeswoman Maureen Brown called the settlement "far-reaching and constructive." She said the company did not acknowledge liability for the residents' problems but opted for a "constructive solution that also avoids lengthy litigation."

Residents say they are grateful the case was settled quickly, as they have been living with concern, uncertainty and inconvenience for more than a year.

That's when the Anne Arundel County Health Department reported that it had found nearly two dozen wells in the area contaminated with aluminum, sulfate and manganese, as well as traces of arsenic and other toxic metals.

The discovery prompted Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold to seek County Council approval of a countywide ban on dumping fly ash, which remains in effect. The state Department of the Environment, meanwhile, fined Constellation and the gravel pits' operator $1 million and ordered them to supply safe water to homes with contaminated wells.

That order guaranteed public water only to five homes with the most tainted wells, including Jennings'. For the past year, he and some of his family members who live along Summerfield Road have been getting water piped to their homes through hoses connected to a fire hydrant at a nearby shopping center. The jury-rigged, above-ground plumbing has frozen once or twice, and Jennings says he nicked his hose a couple of times last summer while mowing the lawn.

In the settlement, Constellation agreed to pay to connect 84 homes to public water, and to pay their water bills as long as the current residents live there - at an estimated cost of $7.5 million.

One of those homes is Gayle Queen's on Queen Mitchell Road. She and her family have been drinking bottled water since learning a year ago that their well was contaminated. Queen said yesterday that she didn't realize anything was wrong with the water for years, though a washer and refrigerator had to be replaced shortly after they moved there 12 years ago.

But her husband, David, became ill and died of kidney failure in early 2006; she said she believes the illness might have stemmed from the water they were drinking. The most common contaminants found in the well water - aluminum, sulfate and manganese - do not pose significant risks for most people, according to a fact sheet put out by state and local officials. But aluminum can be a problem for people with advanced kidney disease, it said.

Queen, 55, said she has also suffered leg problems that doctors are unable to explain.

In addition to extending public water to the homes, Constellation agreed to spend about $10 million on finding and fixing leaks at the two gravel pits. The company also agreed to provide $500,000 for landscaping to screen a neighboring condominium complex from the mining operation.

"This will be a tremendous relief," Queen said of the settlement. She said she hopes the case inspires other people and communities to take action against threats to their environment and health.

"This is something you can't just do," she said. "Other people can't just dump stuff and say it's OK." Though grateful for the settlement, she adds, it "can't replace lives - or things that are destroyed."

"It probably could all have been prevented if they just did the right thing," Jennings said.

Constellation has been shipping ash from Brandon Shores to a disposal site in Virginia for the past year, since the county banished it. In the settlement, the company pledged not to seek to dispose of any more ash at either mine pit. That commitment could cost Constellation about $17 million a year in transportation costs, according to spokeswoman Brown.

Beyond the other costs, the residents' attorneys are in line to collect up to $10 million for their part in gaining the settlement, said William Hassan Murphy III, managing partner of the Murphy Firm. His firm worked with Peter G. Angelos' law firm on the case.

An environmental activist who helped bring the problem to light praised the settlement. But Brad Heavner, director of Environment Maryland, expressed frustration that the state has yet to adopt regulations requiring ash disposal sites to have clay liners that would keep contaminants from seeping into groundwater. Power plants and other coal-burning facilities generate about 2 million tons of ash a year, according to the state.

"We need rules for well-designed, lined sites to dump this ash locally," Heavner said, instead of having it trucked to other states where no such protections are required. "It's just been painfully slow."

The state Department of the Environment proposed rules last year aimed at preventing air and water pollution from disposal of ash and other coal-burning byproducts. The rules have yet to be finalized, MDE spokesman Robert Ballinger says, because department officials were "overwhelmed" by comments on them from power plant operators and other "stakeholders." Ballinger said officials still hope to complete work on the rules by the end of the year.

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