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State's environmental watchdogs pick the easy fights

July 26, 1998

Tim RowlandBy now, protection of the environment shouldn't even be open to debate, just as we no longer debate female voting rights or racial segregation.

Yes, there will always be professorial "experts" whose "research" is funded by chemical corporations and oil interests who will happily take corporate cash in exchange for contending there's no such thing as global warming or acid rain.

But they're easy enough to deal with because with a little effort you can follow the money trail and see who is pulling their strings.

What complicates the picture is when governmental agencies assigned the fairly straightforward task of reasonably protecting the environment follow a course of policy that is equal parts annoying, frustrating and confusing.

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With that in mind, the Washington County delegation ought to pick the Maryland Department of the Environment up by the ears and give it a good shake.

Two situations this week have begged for some guidance, some voice of reason out of the state, but the messages have been either mixed, or non-existant.

First is the recurring problem of waste water pumped by the city into Hamilton Run. The MDE has reacted with a ho-hum detachment, contending it's no threat to people or fish.

A spokesman for the MDE calmly says employees are sent out to scoop up "floatables," a rather unsavory euphemism for toilet paper and other globs of who-knows-what that washes into the creek following heavy rains. And for years now, the MDE has basically been giving the city all the time it wants to correct the problem.

Perhaps they're right, perhaps its no threat. But residents say the creek smells bad after rains and signs warn park-goers to keep away from the water.

The MDE doesn't consider this a problem? This is the same MDE, remember, that wanted to shut down every farm in the state after finding a few dead fish in the Chesapeake Bay. These bay "floaters" were greeted with a little more concern than Hamilton Run's.

Then there's the Hagerstown roundhouse site. CSX Real Property is willing to sell the 40 acres for the agreeable price of $500,000, provided it can wash its hands of any environmental responsibility.

Mayor Bob Bruchey quite correctly says the city would be crazy to participate in the deal if taxpayers will be liable for any potential environmental cleanup costs.

Potential is the word. Because the MDE either can't or won't say whether there are any contaminants on the site that need cleaning up.

There's a strict and irreversible deadline at work here, because this week CSX filed for a demolition permit and is ready to tear down the historic buildings if they aren't sold.

The MDE had no problems barging into Washington County and forcing the Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program on car owners in a rural area where locally registered automobile emissions are comparatively negligible. But where are they when we could use their help? Is the site hopelessly contaminated or not?

If it's clean say so, and put it in writing, so the city can help develop the project. And if it's not clean? If it's not clean why isn't the MDE vigorously pursuing CSX, to dispose of the hazards?

I think we can all pretty much guess the answers. The MDE would have no qualms forcing Hagerstown into an expensive cleanup operation, because it knows local governments can't fight back. CSX, on the other hand, has huge financial and legal resources and would no-doubt be willing to wage a lengthy and expensive legal war.

(Please don't insult us with the claptrap that the property is safe so long as it is undisturbed. Either the ground is contaminated or it's not - and it's in the middle of the city, it can't be expected to sit fallow forever).

Another fair question is why the MDE would care about the roundhouse when it's so blase about Hamilton Run. Perhaps it wouldn't. But old industrial sites are always more sexy environmental targets than children dabbling in sewer water, and the MDE has proved its proclivity for inconsistency. You never know when the MDE knee is going to jerk.

So we need answers. Washington County lawmakers should demand that MDE either sign off on the property as safe, or take action against CSX to clean the property up at the corporation's expense if it's not.

And lawmakers concerned about the environment should remind the MDE that an agency with unfair, inflexible rules unevenly administered can significantly harm, in the public's eye, the very cause it is supposed to defend.

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