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Lawmakers want higher fines for spills

February 28, 2002|BY LAURA ERNDE

Whoever caused the Hagerstown sewer plant shutdown would face higher fines under legislation being considered this session by the Maryland General Assembly.

Investigators are hot on the trail of the person or business that dumped chemicals into Hagerstown's sewer system earlier this month, Robert M. Summers, the director of the state's Water Management Administration, said Wednesday.

Under existing law, the maximum civil penalty will be either $1,000 or $10,000, depending on whether the dumping was done on purpose, Summers said.

"In this case, without a change in the law we're very limited," he said.

An administration proposal seeks to increase the fines to $10,000 and $25,000.

State officials also want to be reimbursed for their costs in dealing with such spills.

Summers said it cost thousands of dollars to warn people to stay away from the Antietam Creek after the shutdown and to evaluate the environmental damage.

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The sewer plant was discharging 5.6 million gallons a day of largely untreated waste water because the materials - believed to be toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene - killed the bacterial treatment agents at the Frederick Street plant.

The shutdown did not hurt any people or fish and municipal water plants downstream were able to prevent their systems from becoming contaminated, Summers said.

Investigators from the Maryland State Police, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state's compliance program are interviewing businesses and acting on tips from the public, he said.

"As is often the case in these environmental cases, there's a good possibility that whoever did it doesn't realize what they did," he said.

Higher penalties are needed so people will take environmental laws seriously, he said.

Business and industry groups testified against the higher fines at a hearing Wednesday in the House Environmental Matters Committee.

The fines and other proposed fee increases would hit businesses at a time when they can least afford it, they argued.

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