Fear the Turtle: A federal raid in Maryland shows how common snapping turtles can have an uncommon bite

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, March 18, 2009

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Tread carefully when messing with turtles. (Photo credit: Van Smith)

Matt and Mike look to be in their 20s. They are keeping warm from the mid-January cold in Turtle Deluxe, Inc.’s stark office trailer, nestled between its loading dock and warehouse in Millington, a small town near the headwaters of the Chester River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. An electric heater hums, casting an orange glow on the room’s many bare surfaces, as Matt sits behind the expanse of a clean metal desk and Mike stands, the shelving behind him also empty. They say their boss, Turtle Deluxe owner Mike Johnson, is out of town on vacation.

Yes, Matt and Mike confirm, Turtle Deluxe processes common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) and sells the meat for people to cook and eat, but not at this time of year, and usually not for over-the-counter sales. Turtle Deluxe products typically end up shipped through other suppliers to restaurants in Philadelphia and Louisiana, they contend, and no, they don’t know of any Maryland restaurants that serve its turtle meat.

“Kind of unusual,” Matt says of the stuff, “but it sells.”

Maybe in the spring Turtle Deluxe will have some turtle meat, Mike and Matt say. Then again, maybe not.

“It’s hard to say,” a bemused Mike observes as he takes a business card. “Call again in a few months and see.”

For a company called Turtle Deluxe, which sells turtle meat, it seems curious that the forecast would be so uncertain. But the reason is found in U.S. District Court filings in Baltimore: Turtle Deluxe is under federal criminal investigation.

The company’s owner, whose full name is Michael Vincent Johnson, is suspected of buying poached out-of-state snapping turtles from New York trappers, and the feds are trying to make a criminal case out of it. Agents entered Turtle Deluxe’s doors on Jan. 15, armed with a warrant describing why, and carted off voluminous business records.

Johnson has not been charged as a result of the raid. A reporter’s second visit to Turtle Deluxe on Jan. 29, though, made clear that he is under a lot of pressure. Johnson is something of a politician, having lost the Democratic primary in the 2006 Kent County Commissioners race, despite winning more than 1,000 votes–16 percent of the total–in a five-way race, so there must be moments when he is charming. This isn’t one of them.

“Get the fuck out of here,” Johnson commands a reporter. He emerges from behind a storage trailer next to the parking lot, molten anger pulsing through his spry, compact frame. For a split second, there’s hope that the gentle politician hiding under Johnson’s gruff exterior will emerge. A second plea to discuss Turtle Deluxe softens him enough to say, “Have a nice day,” but then another round of venom quickly spits out from behind his graying goatee. “Get the fuck out of here!” he repeats.

There’s no need to risk a third invitation to scram, though the prospect of Johnson resorting to violence seems remote. He looks to be in enough trouble already.

 Mike Johnson’s troubles started when a fellow named Kenneth Howard, who lives near the Alabama swamps in western New York, talked too much. They got worse when Mike Johnson did, too.

Believe it or not, there are laws against what Howard and Johnson are alleged to have done. Common snapping turtles have survived some 200 million years, but, common as they are, New York and other states have moved to protect them. Though Howard and Johnson have not been charged with a crime, the Turtle Deluxe raid warrant contends they knew what they were doing was illegal.

Here’s the law, in a nutshell: The New York State Assembly in 2006 clamped down on trapping live common snapping turtles. While it is OK, for personal use and consumption, to take up to five turtles a day and no more than 30 per 10-week season from July to September, it is not OK to trap them; instead, they must be shot dead with a gun or a bow and arrow. That means live snappers trapped in New York are contraband, and if they are transported across state lines, the federal Lacey Act–which prohibits interstate transport of contraband items–can come into play.

Authorities in New York wasted no time getting down to enforcement of the new law. In January 2007, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) investigator Daniel Sullivan “initiated contact with Howard in his covert capacity,” according to the Turtle Deluxe raid warrant, “portraying himself as a trapper of turtles looking for a buyer.” Howard, being helpful, told Sullivan all he knew on the subject.

Howard “transports about two hundred turtles to the ‘turtle factory’ located in Millington, Maryland three or four times per year,” the warrant explains. He “knows several other guys in New York who trap Common Snapping Turtles and he drives their turtles down to Maryland with his own. He keeps half of the money paid for the turtles he transports for the others.” As for the legality of this activity, the warrant continues, Howard “stated that he knew there was a season for Common Snapping Turtles in New York State and that all turtles were protected.”

Sullivan was off and running. He hit the internet, found that Turtle Deluxe “offered to buy turtles from the general public,” and on Jan. 30, 2007, called and left a message there, saying “he was from Western New York and had turtles he wished to sell.” Three days later, Mike Johnson called back and told Sullivan “he would buy every turtle he could get his hands on.”

According to the warrant, Johnson went on to say that “he has two suppliers in New York State” and “the turtles he bought were mainly processed for their meat and sold to domestic and foreign buyers. Some were sold live to foreign buyers. He stated that prices fluctuated, but he usually paid between $1.00 and $1.50 per pound.” Johnson said he “buys from so many states that he couldn’t keep track of the laws,” so “he buys turtles based on what was legal where he lived (Maryland).”

Sullivan arranged a shipment, and on Oct. 2, 2007, he drove from New York to Millington with 835 pounds of live snappers and 20 painted turtles to be sold to Johnson, who met him when he arrived. While the turtles were being unloaded, Sullivan flat-out told Johnson what they were doing was illegal. “The season never opened in New York this year,” the warrant has Sullivan saying, adding that “it was illegal to trap live turtles” there now.

Johnson’s response isn’t memorialized in the warrant, but the details of the transaction are. He gave Sullivan a receipt for the turtles and a check for $1,212.20 and told him “to go to the Peoples Bank down the street, where he could cash the check and leave no paper trail.”

 The following summer,on June 24, 2008, Sullivan called Johnson about bringing down another load of New York snappers. This time, Johnson was wary. He didn’t want any illegal turtles brought down, he said, but he “needed his turtles live and preferred them caught in traps,” according to the warrant.

Johnson admitted knowing that the New York laws had changed. He told Sullivan that, now that he knew that Sullivan knew the turtles were illegal, how was Johnson supposed to know Sullivan “did not work for the Federal Government?” There was “no way he would buy” Sullivan’s turtles now, and Sullivan “should not have made the mistake of telling him that the turtles were illegal” because now he “could not buy them.” Johnson said “it would be insane for him to knowingly violate the Lacey Act.”

Enter Randy Cottrell, special agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, based in Amherst, N.Y.

Cottrell’s investigations typically make use of the Lacey Act, but they tend to involve creatures more exotic than snappers. In one, for instance, a couple was nabbed for bringing endangered African leopards to New York from an Ohio seller. But Cottrell has busted people for reptilian trafficking, too, such as a guy bringing two endangered species–a spotted turtle and two eastern massasauga rattlesnakes–to New York from Canada.

But the ubiquitous common snapping turtle? Well, why not, now that it’s contraband?

According to the warrant, Cottrell had been involved in Sullivan’s Turtle Deluxe investigation from the beginning, working with Sullivan and others from the DEC. Now, though, he’d do the field work like Sullivan did, going undercover as a trapper trying to sell New York common snappers.

Cottrell set up a shipment to Turtle Deluxe, and arrived in Millington on Oct. 20, 2008, with 80 live turtles. Cottrell helped Johnson and another employee unload them to be sorted and weighed. Johnson gave Cottrell a check for $1,045.50 and told him to go cash it at the Peoples Bank down the road, just like he’d told Sullivan a year earlier.

Having invested nearly two years, Cottrell and Sullivan were now ready to take it to the next level–executing a search and seizure warrant. U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge James Bredar signed it in Baltimore on Jan. 14, and the next day, Cottrell and his crew went down to Millington and began taking away Turtle Deluxe documents. In all, they seized 22 items, including nine boxes of records, notebooks, an address book, a phone list, checkbooks and stubs, receipts, business cards, and the contents of a laptop computer.

No one from the various agencies involved in the ongoing investigation would comment about the raid, the warrant, or anything about the case. Neither would Matt Esworthy of Baltimore, the lawyer Johnson recently retained to represent him as the investigation continues. Attempts to reach Kenneth Howard were not successful, though court records in New York indicate he went bankrupt last year after his self-employment income suddenly crashed.

 There’s an old saying: “Behold the turtle, he makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.” That’s also when the butcher cuts off the turtle’s head, so the saying is flawed. But it still makes a good point: The turtle’s progress can also be its undoing.

The same may be said of Johnson and Howard. Their livelihoods stood to gain as they stuck their necks out to get turtle meat to market, and now it remains to be seen whether the axe will fall–and whether they’ll still be able to make turtle-meat money at all.

The Turtle Deluxe raid is part of a global phenomenon, affirms James Gibbs, after he is given the details by City Paper. The State University of New York biology professor is an international expert on turtles of all kinds, but has a keen interest in common snapping turtles in New York–which he says are abundant now, but due to growing global demand for turtle meat, could see their numbers plummet quickly.

“The global market is expanding,” Gibbs explains, “and now it is beginning to affect us, because one can make a pretty good living today in the United States selling live snapping turtles to the Asian market. States that have banned trapping, like Maine and New York, are trying to get a jump on something that could really decimate our stock. In Asia over the last two or three years, they have depleted their own turtle populations and have been looking elsewhere around the world to meet the demand, so prices have been rising. These are forces that are beyond our control here, so shutting down commercial trapping is a pre-meditated attempt to forestall the plummeting of our own stock’s numbers.”

Gibbs is no stranger to turtle meat himself, and doesn’t oppose the capturing, butchering, and eating of turtles. Its appeal in the United States is largely limited to cultural outposts in the South and Midwest, he says, where old-timers still like to run their traps. It’s back-breaking work, bringing big snappers home for butchering, Gibbs observes, but “it’s pretty good meat, once you get past the leeches and the algae and whatnot that grow on them.” Careful about the PCBs, though, because the meat of turtles from some contaminated areas have “levels off the charts,” he adds.

There are still big cities where restaurants serve turtle dishes–the best known, perhaps, being New Orleans, where Commander’s Palace and Brennan’s both have turtle soup on their menus, and Philadelphia, where Bookbinder’s has its “famous snapper soup.” Baltimore’s Maryland Club, a private social club, is renowned for terrapin stew, but that’s a different kind of turtle–and a whole other City Paper story (“Shell Game,” Eats and Drinks, Sept. 17, 1997).

Restaurants’ needs, along with those of swamp chefs and other turtle-eating enthusiasts, don’t add up to much pressure on snapping turtle populations currently, Gibbs goes on. But if demand climbs–as has been happening with the growing Asian market for U.S. snappers–the results could be devastating.

Gibbs says snappers, like many turtles, don’t reach sexual maturity until 10 years, and can live another 30 past that. Each year, 95 percent or more of those adults must survive for the population to stay at viable levels, otherwise it will plummet because of very high juvenile mortality. The youngsters’ long odds of reaching adulthood have gotten longer with the proliferation of mid-sized predators, like raccoons and foxes, brought on by the declining numbers of their own predators.

The New York population of common snapping turtles is “huge” right now, Gibbs says, “but they are not reproducing well at all, and that doesn’t bode well for the future.” Turtles, he explains, need loose soils in sunny areas to have successful hatches, and the reforestation of New England over the last several decades has shaded much good turtle-nesting habitat. Thus, large-scale trapping of live adults–including egg-bearing females–could add up to a very real threat to survival.

If Johnson and Howard were up to what Cottrell and Sullivan are out to prove, and were good for say, 600 to 800 adult New York snappers being trapped for butchering at Turtle Deluxe each year, then, according to Gibbs, they probably haven’t done much damage to the snappers’ overall well-being. Even if there are only six or eight trappers operating at that level in New York, Gibbs continues, it still wouldn’t be a problem. But “if there are 200 or 300 trappers–and there may be that many, I just don’t know–there’s a problem,” though he adds that “it’s not likely to have gotten to that level or someone would have noticed.”

Harlon Pearce,proprietor of the Louisiana seafood processor and supplier Harlon’s LA Fish, knows Mike Johnson and Turtle Deluxe. “There aren’t too many turtle processing plants around–there’s him, and then there’s some in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Iowa that I’m aware of,” Pearce explains. “There’s only a smattering of people around the country doing it, and he’s a pretty large processor. He does do a lot of turtles. And based on his pricing, he’s for sure shipping a lot of those turtles overseas.”

Pearce, who’s a member of the Louisiana state government’s Seafood Standards of Identity Task Force and the advisory board of the Louisiana State University Department of Food Science, has a pretty good grasp of the global turtle picture, too. “The Asian market,” he says, “has helped the [common snapping turtle] industry get a lot stronger very quickly over the last couple of years.” He’s no fan of Johnson and Turtle Deluxe, though. In 2004, he sued them in Kent County court over money he’d given Johnson in advance for turtles that Pearce says he never got. He lost–“that kangaroo court they got down there backed him, if you can believe it,” he says–and moved on. Now he’s intrigued by the news that Johnson may have Lacey Act problems.

“If Turtle Deluxe is taken down by the Lacey Act,” Pearce predicts, “it will affect the U.S. supply of snapping turtles, and it’ll make more demand in Asia because there will be less turtles to satisfy that market.” Snappers are common–“there certainly is not a problem of overfishing,” he contends–but the meat “is not an easy commodity to handle because the laws are just varied in states across the country.” The loss of one processing plant like Turtle Deluxe, he says, can make a big difference until new avenues for bringing the turtles to market open up lawfully.

Pearce is of the opinion that states like New York and Maine, which have shut down commercial snapper trapping, are engaging in “a lot of knee-jerk reactions based on environmentalists saying we are decimating our resources. I’m not privy to the science of those states, but, no, you don’t have a problem with turtle numbers. There are plenty out there, and these laws are just overreactions. Plus, there are a lot of farm turtles, too.”

Nonetheless, “you got to obey the law, or try and change it,” Pearce continues, “or you’re an idiot and you deserve what you get.”

But it’s still sad, he adds, that people lose their livelihoods over the passage of such laws. “Like that old turtle trapper out there,” he says. “It’s been legal his whole life, and then suddenly it isn’t and he’s supposedly some kind of criminal. I don’t think we should take away jobs like that.”

Tom Frisch of Ohio, a 79-year-old retired snapping turtle trapper, got out of commercial trapping in the 1980s. “Now I just do it for my own, or when someone calls wanting to get a turtle out of their pond. And I’m the Johnny Appleseed of snapping turtles,” he adds, because he also raises them for release in the wild. And though he still processes turtles for people on occasion, “I won’t butcher females anymore. It’s just not good practice.”

Frisch has a sense that, despite the ever-restrictive regulatory environment surrounding commercial snapping-turtle trappers, some have been able not only to keep working, but to make a good living at it. He says he knows a snapper trapper still in business, though he won’t give his name, who’s been going gangbusters compared to what Frisch used to do in his day.

“In Ohio, back when I was doing it, you could trap for a month, maybe take a ton of turtles,” Frisch recalls. “But this guy goes to New York State, along the St. Lawrence Seaway, and after four days there he comes back with a ton of turtles in his truck, and that’s maybe 200 turtles. New York has really been a good trapping area for the last few years. And then he goes up to Maine, and comes back with the biggest turtles you’ve ever seen. He does a lot of traveling, going down into Kentucky, too. But he does not trap anymore until after the turtles have laid their eggs. In other words, he’s a conservationist, too.”

Gibbs, the biology professor in New York, hears about Frisch’s story of the prolific trapper and remains nonplussed. “You’re talking about some guy from out of state with a big truck that he fills up, then trundles on down to some factory somewhere,” he says. “That’s not trivial, dealing in actual tons of turtles and doing it illegally, and if you had a lot of people doing this, it would be a terrible problem. That’s why the enforcement end of the new no-trapping rules is so important, to keep that from happening.”

Ron Fithian is one of Kent County’s three commissioners who beat out Mike Johnson in the 1996 election, and he heard about the Turtle Deluxe raid shortly after it happened. “All we ever heard,” he recalls, “is that a bunch of law enforcement officers showed up at his place, but we never heard anything more about it, so we figured nothing came of it.”

Fithian has been in the seafood business on the Eastern Shore for 27 years, he says, and he’s also the town manager of Rock Hall. He used to sell rockfish to Johnson, “but then he sort of got out of it,” Fithian recalls, “and the next thing I knew, he was in the turtle business in Millington. And there are not that many people that are in the turtle business around here, because there was never much money in it. You’d get maybe a quarter, thirty-five cents a pound, and that was the price forever, no fluctuations for years. Just not worth the effort, at that price.”

But all that changed, Fithian said, when Johnson “discovered a market overseas, and I heard he started paying upward of $1.50 per pound for live snapping turtles. That was just unheard of.”

Now that Fithian knows Johnson is caught up in a Lacey Act turtle investigation out of New York, all he has to say is, “I always have looked upon him as a law-abiding citizen. He’s been somewhat of an activist at times in the community, and he always wants you to think he’s Mr. Environmentalist. I do know him, and I know him well. But there isn’t much I can say, other than this isn’t the type of thing he’s wanting to be known as.”

And perhaps Johnson won’t be known that way, depending on how the Turtle Deluxe investigation wraps up.

Party Crasher: Clean-water group’s failed legal effort to help oversee Baltimore’s sewage-repair plan exposes lax enforcement

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Oct. 30, 2013

After years of watching state and federal regulators fail to enforce violations of Baltimore City’s 11-year-old agreement to fix its leaking sewer system, Blue Water Baltimore (BWB) this summer “went forward and took action,” says the clean-water group’s executive director, Halle Van der Gaag. But BWB’s bold step—litigating to become an intervening party in the 2002 lawsuit that crafted the “consent decree” that dictates how the city is to spend nearly $1 billion to overhaul its sewers—failed on Oct. 1.

That’s when U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz denied BWB’s motion to intervene, leaving intact the existing roster of parties: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), the plaintiffs who alleged the city was committing chronic violations of the federal Clean Water Act, and the defendant, Baltimore City, which avoided massive fines and legal costs by accepting the terms of the consent decree—but, as a result, had to send water and wastewater fees on users soaring in order to fund the required upgrades.

The system, though, remains rife with leaks and overflows—a point that BWB drove home in its legal filings, which also exposed seemingly lax enforcement by EPA and MDE for apparent violations of the consent decree.

In one instance, Baltimore City estimated that a sewage overflow on Herring Run last fall amounted to 8,100 gallons—versus the 800,000- to 1,000,000-gallon estimate calculated by BWB volunteer Thayer Young, an environmental engineer who lives nearby the spill and is an expert in tracking sewage contamination. What’s more, the city’s official report of the leak attributed it to wet weather from Superstorm Sandy, but Young observed the leak already occurring before the storm hit Baltimore.

“I believe that the City of Baltimore highly underestimated the flow rate and total sewage overflow volume” of this “sewage overflow incident,” Young concluded in an affidavit attached to BWB’s recent court filings. “Furthermore,” he added,” although Super Storm Sandy clearly exacerbated” the incident, “the overflow actually began at least 12 hours before the storm showed an impact” on the Herring Run’s water levels.

The discrepancy in the estimated amounts of leaked sewage is important not only because of public-health and environmental concerns arising from such a massive release into a Baltimore stream, but because the City of Baltimore, under the consent decree, is required to pay fines based on the amount of sewage it estimates was released. In this case, the city’s estimate was two orders of magnitude lower than Young’s, which was based on meticulous observations and technically proficient calculations based on video recordings and engineering concepts.

Yet, according to David Flores, BWB’s longtime water-quality manager who was recently appointed as Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper—a BWB program that seeks to apply the law to attain cleaner water—“there hasn’t been any enforcement” by MDE or EPA over this incident.

In its legal filings, BWB’s attorneys wrote that the city’s estimate of the amount leaked during the incident is tantamount “to the flow rate from a standard drinking water fountain”—which photos of the leaking sewer give lie to—and that the city “has not provided any correction of its inaccurate volume estimates or any explanation as to how those estimates could be so far off the mark.”

When CP asked the two agencies and the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW) about this, EPA and DPW each provided a copy of an 80-page document prepared in May in response to BWB’s numerous concerns about ongoing sewer-related problems under the consent decree. On page nine, the document explains what was done: Last November, an inspection revealed “roots and debris” had clogged the sewer line, so it was cleaned and the manhole was rebuilt.

“It is believed that all of the problems causing previous overflows at this location have been resolved,” the document concludes—without addressing at all the seriously low-balled estimate of the size of the overflow.

“EPA understands that sewage discharges in Baltimore are a serious problem and we have been working with the State of Maryland and the City of Baltimore to curtail them,” EPA spokesperson David Sternberg writes in an email to City Paper, adding that “sanitary sewer overflows are being addressed within the context of the 2002 federal consent decree.”

But BWB’s court filings detailed numerous instances of apparent consent-decree violations by the city that appear not to have prompted any regulatory response by EPA or MDE. They included continuous leaks from a sewage structure and large periodic sewage overflows along the Jones Falls near the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, a stretch of the river where a heavily used pedestrian and bike path is located; evidence of unreported overflows from the Jones Falls Pumping Station in Hampden; a June 2012 week-long sewage discharge into the harbor, of unknown origin; repeated sewage overflows on South Clinton Street in Canton; and failures to adequately clean up or warn the public of sewage contamination after overflows occur.

The 80-page document that EPA and DPW provided to City Paper addresses most of the issues BWB raised—but it does not indicate that any penalties or other enforcement action was taken by federal and state regulators as a result. It merely explains the problems and how they are being addressed.

After helping to document all of these problems, Flores has been disappointed by the official response. “We documented all the violations that we observed,” he says, and put them “in a written report to EPA and MDE, and rather than investigate and enforce them, they requested a response from Baltimore City, which was inadequate.”

Van der Gaag says she’s “disappointed” and “frustrated” that Motz denied BWB’s attempt to intervene in the consent decree, because having a citizen group at the table would help “ensure accountability” in the sewer-upgrade process. So far, she points out, “hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent with very little outcome that the water quality is getting better.”

Falling Waters: One longtime polluter is cleaning up, but the Jones Falls’ troubles are far from over

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 4, 2004

When City Paper literally stumbled upon Hollins Organic Products in December (“Untestable Waters,” Dec. 24, 2003), the three-acre mulch-making operation in Baltimore County’s Bare Hills section was polluting an adjacent stream with black, fusty runoff from its towering piles of compost. The unnamed stream, which runs through city-owned Robert E. Lee Park, was opaque and dark from the point where Hollins Organic discharge entered it, and its sediments were stained from the discoloration.

Hollins Organic owner Doug Hollins told City Paper it was a new problem, brought on by 2003’s unusually wet weather, and that he was in the midst of designing a permanent fix to keep the compost-laden water from overflowing the site’s containment pond and spoiling the stream.

In a Jan. 29 interview, though, Hollins changed his tune after he was informed that the Baltimore County permit file for Hollins Organic shows a 10-year history of stream pollution, despite a permit requirement that the facility “shall not be operated in such a manner as to create water pollution.”

The overflows from the site, the file makes clear, are believed to be brought on by storm events, but the record rains of 2003 were by no means unique in the documented history of Hollins Organic’s sullying of the stream. Community complaints and inspection reports about problems at the site fill the file, with county visits dating back a decade. By that time, the business had already been operating there for 12 years.

“We probably should have done this years ago,” Hollins concedes, referring to the solution he hopes to have installed by early March: a large cement tank to hold site runoff, designed with a mechanism that automatically sprays its contents back onto the mulch piles when it fills to a certain level. “In the long term, it’s going to be a better process,” he predicts, adding, “I do take this stuff very seriously. We will do whatever it takes to make sure this issue is solved.”

In the big picture, Hollins Organic’s faulty runoff containment may seem insignificant. But the unnamed tributary it despoils tumbles downhill for about half a mile before emptying into the Jones Falls, the heir of more than 350 years of human-generated runoff, which rolls along in all of its nutrient-laden, sediment-bearing glory, bound for Lake Roland, then down through the city to the Inner Harbor, the Patapsco River, and the Chesapeake Bay. The Hollins Organic problem is yet another thread in the much larger story of what water-quality experts call “loads to the system”: erosion, animal waste, leaky septic systems and sewers, the runoff from roads, buildings, farms, and parking lots–all of them bringing more water-borne baggage for the Jones Falls to handle.

The efforts of government and citizens to reduce this load have been underway since at least 1972, when the federal Clean Water Act was passed, establishing rules intended to stem pollution. Slow, steady implementation of laws and better management choices have led to some improvements in some upstream parts of the Jones Falls, but, ironically, as the river approaches the relative idyll of Robert E. Lee Park, its water quickly degrades. That’s because the park’s main attraction, Lake Roland, is the common catch basin for every source of upstream water pollution, from Pikesville east to Towson.

Lake Roland, in essence, is like Hollins Organic’s sediment pond–instead of a small composting yard, though, Lake Roland handles the drainage for 33 square miles of suburban watershed. Like Hollins Organic’s pond, Lake Roland over the years has been much studied and lightly managed. Both hold back pollution from the Chesapeake Bay, and both do so less effectively when it rains.

But, whereas Hollins Organic is on track to stopper up its leaky catch-basin, there are no plans to keep Lake Roland from continuing to do what it’s done since it ceased being an active reservoir in 1915–filling in with whatever pollutants drop out of the Falls’ water as it settles behind the dam. The lake’s capacity to trap pollutants before the river crests over the dam, en route to the city, depends on plugging up upstream sources–like Hollins Organic. It’s a never-ending task that, despite years of talk, has only just begun.

The first visit to Hollins Organic Products by the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management (DEPRM), back in January 1993, found “an open dump consisting of old 55 gallon drums, 275 gallon oil tanks, pressure treated lumber, metal pipes, etc., . . . Mr. Hollins stated that his landlord . . . dumped the material.”

That was count number one, leveled against the landlord–who dragged his feet past the 30-day deadline for cleaning up the mess, but eventually complied. Count two was against Hollins Organic, whose owner was informed that the facility had 30 days to apply for a DEPRM solid-waste processing permit. The company finally submitted the paperwork after nearly a year, without penalty–though DEPRM did threaten legal action, which seemed to get the process in gear.

The permit file indicates that the delay was due to Hollins’ uncertainty about how to go about controlling sediment on the site. Ultimately, though, Hollins Organic installed a containment pond to trap runoff, a low basin on the site where the liquid dregs of the operation would drain and settle. The pond is separated from park property by an earthen berm, leading to a steep slope down to the unnamed stream, which starts beneath parking lots and businesses along Falls Road and meanders through the woods behind Hollins Organic on its way to the Jones Falls.

The stream courses through an area of uncommon history and ecology. In 1992, months prior to DEPRM’s first visit to Hollins Organic, the National Registry of Historic Places had made 450-acre Robert E. Lee Park the centerpiece of the then-newly designated Lake Roland Historic District, named after the erstwhile city reservoir a mile or so downstream from the composting facility. A stone’s throw away from the mulch piles is an abandoned quarry, a reminder that here is where chromite was first discovered, in 1808, heralding a half-century of Baltimore domination of global chromium production. The Virginia pines and briars that dominate Hollins Organic’s side of the park cover rocky terrain known as serpentine barren, an unusual geology attractive both for mineral extraction and, in small outcroppings of unforested space, a special array of grasses, flowers, and bugs that can tolerate its metallic soil.

Thus, it would seem, the case for stopping its degradation by Hollins Organic was that much more compelling.

In April 1994, a DEPRM inspector noted that Hollins Organic’s pond “did not appear to be designed properly. Runoff and leachate from the compost stockpiles overflows through rip-rap stone to a small feeder stream to the Jones Falls.” In February 1995, a DEPRM supervisor noted that the pond “was filling up with sediment and should be upgraded with the addition of stone”–a measure Hollins Organic took immediately.

It didn’t fix the leak, though, because a year later Robert E. Lee Park Conservancy President Robert Macht wrote a letter to DEPRM, pointing out that the stream’s “water quality is being adversely effected” by the Hollins Organic operation, that “sometimes the stream is bright green,” and that “an unpleasant odor is emanating” from the water. The county investigated the complaint, and in March 1996 issued a one-page report explaining that runoff “ponds behind blockage [on the site] and percolates into the ground and is seeping out from the side of the berm.” The one-page report’s solution: Remove the blockage, and if that didn’t work, install an impermeable liner to contain the runoff on-site.

Concerned citizens wanted more. “Water [in the stream] above this runoff is clear and largely odorless,” observed Laurie Long, then-executive director of the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association, in a March 1996 letter to DEPRM. “Water below the runoff is very dark and murky, somewhat frothy, and sometimes green,” adding that “we request that DEPRM . . . establish stream quality requirements as a condition” of Hollins Organic’s permit.

No liner was installed. No stream-quality requirements were established as a condition of the permit. Instead, the pollution continued–not continuously, perhaps, but whenever there was sufficient rainfall to overwhelm the pond’s ever-changing capacity. A Dec. 10, 1996, DEPRM memo about a phone call from the Valleys Planning Council’s then-executive director, John Bernstein, summed up the problem in shorthand: “Organic material washing into stream during storm events–improper containment. Mr. Bernstein said the stream smelled like Hollins Organic Product’s site.”

It’s not as if county officials were simply sitting on their hands. When complaints were lodged, they inspected the site. Within a week after Bernstein’s December 1996 call, for instance, an inspector again visited Hollins and found that the “pond has been washed out and filled in with mulch. The runoff was filtering through . . . [and] was murky in color and did have odor of [Hollins] products.” Doug Hollins told the inspector “he would correct the problem ASAP.” If Hollins did correct the problem, though, it was a short-lived solution because follow-up DEPRM visits, most responding to complaints in 1998 and 1999, showed the leaking continued–and was often “malodorous.”

Then, in April 2000, a DEPRM inspector visited Hollins Organic, prompted by an anonymous phone call, and discovered that “a pump was being used to empty a sediment control pond and water was being discharged” over the berm into the stream. “Mr. Hollins stated that that was the usual practice during a significant rain event.” After that, DEPRM in May 2000 secured assurances from Hollins that he would stop the illegal pumping and come up with a permanent solution to the pond problem. Nearly four years later, the county still awaits one.

In an effort to determine Hollins Organic’s impact on the stream, DEPRM sampled its water at various times starting in 1996–including once at the suggestion of Mr. Hollins himself–but the permit file is only clear about the results from 2002. The data shows that, after a rainstorm, the leaky pond dramatically elevated the stream’s concentrations of common minerals such as iron, sodium, calcium, and potassium, and discharged so much organic content that the stream water exceeded by up to 10 times the recommended standards for water released from the state’s wastewater treatment plants.

DEPRM ordered more samples, but by the end of 2002 the data-gathering was called off. “Plans have been submitted to relocate HO facility to site off of Beaver Dam Rd., in Cockeysville,” a memo in the DEPRM file reads. “As a result, no additional sampling of stream behind Falls Rd. facility is warranted.”

So far, Hollins’ plans to move to the 4.5 acres he purchased in Cockeysville haven’t borne out. (Today he says he still hopes to at least use that property as “a satellite site to relieve the pressure off of” his Bare Hills base.) But, as noted, 2003 turned out to be a record year for rainfall, and history had already shown what happens at Hollins Organic when it rains. When DEPRM returned for a routine inspection in December, it found yet again that Hollins Organic’s pond was polluting the stream.

The county agency declined, for now, to share with City Paper the documents pertaining to the latest discoveries at Hollins, but its director, David Carroll, was willing to talk about DEPRM’s position during an interview in his Towson office. “We’ve said to [Hollins Organic], you’ve got to control this permanently,” Carroll explains, his water-quality staff at hand, ready to answer further questions. “We’ll have to see what he designs, and then decide whether or not to renew his license.”

One thing is clear, though: “The law says he can’t discharge any water” from the site, says DEPRM’s waste-management chief, William Clarke, who adds that Hollins “understands now that there is no scenario under which he is permitted to discharge. Those fixes he tried over the years proved to be inadequate, and now a lot more attention has to be paid to how [the pond] is constructed.”

Clarke bristles at the conclusion that DEPRM’s efforts on behalf of the stream constitute bureaucratic foot-dragging, but, when reminded of the permit file that shows the same problem cropping up over and over again for a decade, he sums up the obvious: “Sometimes it’s a long process.”

David Carroll is head of Baltimore County’s Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management now, but he’s had similar leadership roles in Baltimore City, state, and federal government over the decades–experience that brings a hardened sense of reality about managing the environment in and around a major urban area.

“People have this romantic notion that eventually we’ll get it cleaned up, and that’ll be it,” he says of efforts to improve water quality, in the Jones Falls or any other watershed. “No, it is forever,” he announces solemnly, his slacks and sweater complementing his well-worn bearing of a wizened administrator, comfortable with the big picture and the nitpicking details alike.

“You have to manage for invasive species and deer so that birds will come back, do expensive stream restorations, fix sewer leaks–there’s always something happening there–and make new development create options to improve streams and forest cover with plantings, and install the best technology to control runoff,” Carroll says rapidly. “It’s a long-term commitment and a very complicated project. We spend quite a bit of money every year to go back and find and fix problems. Everybody has their role in it–and we welcome efforts to keep the heat up, because that’s the media’s role.”

Carroll’s posture is understandably defensive, considering the longstanding water-quality problems such as those at Hollins Organic, despite decades of lip service about cleaning them up. In his view, though, certain portions of the upper Jones Falls watershed are recuperating after decades of abuse or neglect. “A large portion of this stream is actually in pretty good status,” he points out. “We do see improvement, and it’s not finished–we have more work to do and we wish we could do even more.”

The good news is that long-term indicators of ecological health confirm that upstream sections of the watershed in the Greenspring Valley area support enough bugs and fish to qualify for removal this year from the state’s annual list of biologically impaired waters. Last year, the entire Jones Falls was taken off a similar list of waters impaired by zinc. Baltimore County officials, meanwhile, report that the Jones Falls trout population has been found as far downstream as Sorrento Run, inside the Beltway where the Jones Falls nears Lake Roland, and is so robust that it is used to stock streams in other county watersheds.

But the Jones Falls continues to bear heavy burdens from bacteria, copper, lead, nutrients, sediments, and PCBs (only in Lake Roland), according to Richard Eskin, head of the Maryland Department of the Environment’s Technical and Regulatory Services Administration. The state Department of Natural Resources, meanwhile, deems the Jones Falls a “Priority Category 1” watershed, meaning the watershed fails to meet the agency’s clean water and natural resources goals. Volunteer stream-water monitors with Maryland Save Our Streams, a now-defunct environmental group, assessed water quality just below the Lake Roland Dam 17 times between 1990 and 1999, finding it “poor” on 13 of those visits. Clearly, something’s rapidly fouling the Jones Falls water as it travels from Interstate 83 to the Lake Roland Dam.

County officials finger three urban subtributaries–Moore’s Branch, Roland Run, and Towson Run–as the most troublesome contributors to these problems. “All three have poor ratings on nine years of biological monitoring,” says DEPRM’s water-quality chief Steve Stewart, adding that costly stream restorations are planned. All three of them dump their loads on the threshold of Lake Roland, which continues to be what researchers dubbed it in a 20-year-old report about the lake: a “microbial sink,” where bacteria, sediment, and other pollutants settle out of the water. As a result, its value for water-based recreation is all but gone–swimming is a high-risk endeavor, and don’t eat the fish–but its value as a giant ecological filter is beyond question.

“Lake Roland’s been doing quite a clean-up job in itself,” observes Eldon Gemmill, another DEPRM water-quality expert. “It’s shallow, it has a lot of aquatic life and wetlands to help treat the runoff. I would dare say the Chesapeake Bay would be a lot worse off without Lake Roland.”

After all, as Carroll points out, “for 140 years, it’s been capturing everything that has come off that watershed. And all that sewerage and storm-water infrastructure from all the highways, and runoff from unregulated pre-1990s development, all of it coming through there–if I wasn’t from around here, and I was seeing the maps for the first time, I’d expect that’s where all the problems would be–right around Lake Roland.”

Field trips to hard-to-reach stretches of the Jones Falls watershed near Lake Roland leave the same unavoidable impression that Carroll describes–these are the areas where it all comes together, so to speak, and dumps a heavy load of contaminants into the falls as it rushes toward the lake. The effects of past abuses–chlordane from termite-control treatments at Greenspring Valley homes, effluent from the textile mill that operated for 150 years until 1979 on the Jones Falls banks just east of I-83–are no longer apparent, but it’s clear the water is still actively polluted.

Each little downstream tributary between Moore’s Branch and Robert E. Lee Park–about a mile-long stretch where the river’s main stem runs just east of Falls Road–makes it own little offering. One, emerging from a secluded, wooded dell right next I-83, trickles with a low but constant flow of foul-smelling water, which wells up from the ground beneath a jumbled wreck of old moss-covered pipes. Another rushes out of the Sorrento Run housing development, staining the creek-bed orange with iron oxide–a sign, county officials explain, of nutrient-rich, oxygen-depleted water upstream, possibly due to sewage. The same phenomenon can be seen where the next two downstream creeks come out of culverts carrying them from neighborhoods west of I-83. Next is the tributary that drains down from Hollins Organic, its banks periodically stained black from the murky discharges upstream.

The combined loads from these active sources are already in the Jones Falls when Roland Run and Towson Run join it at the head of the lake. Roland Run drains Riderwood’s middle-class tracts of detached single-family homes, as well as the posh yards of Ruxton, where leak-prone septic systems are the prevailing sewerage. Towson Run handles the runoff of the Shepherd Pratt/Towson University area, and by the time it approaches Lake Roland, just east of Bellona Avenue, it’s already assumed what DEPRM’s Stewart calls “an urban character” from pollution.

Pollution, of course, has been entering Lake Roland for a long time. It wasn’t until a 1972 study by Goucher College, though, that anyone had a well-informed understanding of its modern problems: rapid in-fill from sediments, high levels of nutrients robbing the water of oxygen, and bacterial contamination. The Goucher study also documented the lake’s ability to cleanse the water. Far fewer microbes were in the water as it left the lake than when it entered, the report showed, so Lake Roland was not only holding back sediments, it was also eliminating microbes.

A Baltimore City report from 1984 confirmed the Goucher group’s finding that Lake Roland was “an efficient microbial trap,” and added that nutrient concentrations in the lake had decreased since 1972. Yet it uncovered a new mystery: “in-lake bacterial contamination was observed which could not be accounted for by tributary inputs.” In other words, something in or immediately around the lake itself, as opposed to its feeder streams, was adding bacteria to the water. The report speculated that the giant sewer main that runs under the lake, or failing septic tanks nearby, might be to blame.

Given the sediment loads entering the lake, meanwhile, the city researchers working on the 1984 report estimated the lake would fill in completely sometime between 2004 and 2048. Without dredging, the report predicted, a filled-in Lake Roland would lose effectiveness as a trap and “sediment and pollutants now trapped in the lake will be transported” downstream to the harbor, where they would have to be dredged later as part of shipping-channel maintenance.

The lake was not dredged, though a stronger replacement dam–the first since the original was put in service in 1861–was constructed in the early 1990s. Carroll knows of no dredging plans–“It would cost a great deal,” he points out. Much better, he says, to let Lake Roland continue to fill in, its open water replaced with emerging acres of stream-traversed wetlands soaking up and settling out the pollutants–cleansing the Jones Falls, at least partially, before it heads across the dam. “We’d almost have to reproduce it by design,” Carroll says of the wetlands’ aid to Jones Falls water quality.

Still, the 1984 report raises the undeniable prospect that the lake will continue to lose more of its valuable capacity to trap so much of the pollutant load the Jones Falls brings it. Since dredging is not in the cards, the obvious solution is more of the same–working to plug leaks, slow erosion, and generally lighten the load the lake and the Jones Falls have to handle.

When it comes to improving the health of the upstream portions of the watershed, “that’s the only way we’ve been able to turn the corner” Carroll contends. “And that’s how we’ll work our way out of the rest of these years of abuses.

“We still have a long, long way to go, certainly in the lower watershed,” he continues. “And the city has a doubly or trebly tough situation.”

The city’s contribution to the Jones Falls’ pollutant load is substantial, and measured in great detail by the city Department of Public Works in an annual report. The latest one, issued last June, shows that Western Run (which enters the Jones Falls at Mount Washington after coursing along Cross Country Boulevard) and Stony Run (which drains Roland Park and Hampden) both suffer from chronic sewage contamination and are virtually devoid of fish. Channel improvements for Stony Run, costing $6.65 million, have been put in the city’s capital budget to help improve matters.

But above the dam, the city also has key responsibilities. After all, city-owned Lake Roland and Robert E. Lee Park fall under the bailiwick of the city Department of Recreation and Parks. Efforts to improve the department’s attention to the park have proven exasperating for critics, such as Robert Macht of the Robert E. Lee Park Conservancy, who says he’s “really frustrated by the lack of care that I perceive the city has taken–little if any management, maintenance, enforcement of rules, or concern for environmental problems. They’ve just failed to show concern on so many counts.”

“There is a lot of controversy around the use of the park,” concedes city Recreation and Parks spokesman Robert Green, “about upkeep and maintenance and future safety, particularly in regards to the 30 acres that are to be closed–the peninsula area–for a soil remediation and erosion control project.” This effort, which is scheduled to begin soon, intends to rectify suspected contamination from dog waste in an area of the park that has long been used almost exclusively by dog owners.

The move was sparked by an October soil analysis on the peninsula that found bacteria and acid levels up to 17,000 times what’s acceptable for human contact, Green explains, though he’s hesitant to speculate that these over-the-top bacteria readings may help explain the 1984 study’s mystery of in-lake bacterial sources: “It’s hard to say for sure, but clearly the soil is very contaminated” and is actively eroding into the lake. Many dog owners have vocally voiced doubt about the contamination, and heated public meetings this winter have left an acrimonious air around the controversy.

In addition, Green adds, the long-planned replacement of the old footbridge across the Jones Falls just below the dam with a bridge capable of handling heavy equipment “is in the final planning stages, and will enable us to do the [soil-remediation] project, and provide better maintenance on an ongoing basis.”

Jeff Budnitz, a board member of the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association, lives next to Robert E. Lee Park and is optimistic that the city is beginning to take an active interest in improving the park. He points to the city’s 13-point “concept plan” for improving the park, a one-page planning document distributed last September, that he says marks the beginning of a coordinated city-county effort to “make the community feel like the pump is being primed” for more action. Some issues set to be addressed, such as shoreline stabilization, erosion protection, and trails maintenance, are much-needed elements of any strategy to help the park reduce its impact on Jones Falls water quality.

Of course, humans and human use are the biggest contributors to the decline in the ecology of the park area. As Christel Cothran, program director of the Jones Falls Watershed Association, notes, “There is so much foot traffic, you have to ask, as with so many such parks, are we loving them to death with high use?” The city’s strategy of closing off the peninsula seems wise, she says, adding that it should extend the practice to other areas of the 450-acre park–“close off sections at a time, give them a rest,” she says. Either way, she adds, now that the city’s doing something, “I think maybe we should give them a little bit of credit for that.”

The same, Cothran continues, holds true for the county. While its handling of the Hollins Organic permit appears to have been a case of ineffectual regulation, Baltimore County’s government “is more attuned to protecting the environment than most any other place in the country,” she contends, rattling off various ways that agencies there have been recognized nationally for their zealous pursuit of good environmental management. “They’re way advanced,” in her estimation, which is why she’s tickled that her organization is partnered with DEPRM to help improve conditions for the Jones Falls by monitoring for pollution problems.

“This is a great opportunity to promote stream-watch programs,” Cothran says of the current attention focused on Lake Roland and the Jones Falls, including the snafu at Hollins Organic, which garnered lots of attention over the years from complaining citizens, yet continued to pollute the stream. “We try to catch these things,” she says. “But the effort’s still not good enough, in many cases. Years go by before people walk back in some of those stream-valley areas, much less report what they might come across. The more people doing that, the better we’re going to be at catching and stopping sources.”

Echoing Carroll’s response when confronted with suggestions that maybe not enough was being done to lessen the Jones Falls’ load, Cothran says bring on the spotlights. “All of the attention we can get for these problems is welcome and needed,” she says. “That’s the only way to fix them, is to have more people involved in the solutions.”

Untestable Waters: A Jones Falls tributary in Robert E. Lee Park spoiled by composting operation

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 24, 2003

Walking in city-owned Robert E. Lee Park, along the east side of Bare Hills in Baltimore County, you’re bound to turn up some deer or maybe scare up a grouse or two. Virginia pines and thick mats of briars and vines dominate the rocky, thin-soiled landscape, which is crisscrossed with streams and trails, some of them used occasionally by humans, most of them blazed faintly by deer that leave scat and hoof-prints on the ground and rub marks from their antlers on tree-trunks.

This pocket of the park, while idyllic, is situated up against the backs of several businesses lining Falls Road, including Hollins Organic Products, a two-acre composting and mulching operation. The company has been located at this Falls Road site for 22 years and, of late, City Paper has discovered, it has been giving Robert E. Lee Park and the Jones Falls, which runs through the park, a nasty dose of pollution.

“This is almost making me puke,” exclaims Darin Crew, a stream monitor for the Herring Run Watershed Association, as he steps carefully around a tree-strewn, briar-choked stream-bed in this rarely traveled area of the park. This particular stream runs alongside Hollins Organic Products, and its water is a murky blackish-brown; it eventually empties into the Jones Falls, less than a mile downstream.

“It smells like a combination of manure and old tobacco chew,” Crew notes. “And the water’s black as English breakfast tea. It’s so full of suspended matter that you can’t see through it at all.”

Robert E. Lee Park’s more high-profile pollution problem, as reported recently in the news, has not been dirty, smelly run-off from Hollins Organic, but rather the tremendous concentration of dog waste that’s accumulated in another, more populated section of the park. City officials are mulling the wholesale replacement of contaminated topsoil near the Jones Falls Dam, which is a hugely popular dog-walking spot.

The pollution from Hollins, discovered by Baltimore County officials on Dec. 12 and stumbled upon by a City Paper reporter walking in the park two days later, has been mostly off the radar. Runoff from Hollins may have been polluting the stream at varying intensities for years, however, though no one has previously noted or reported it.

At City Paper‘s request, Crew agreed to test the water to find out what, if anything, could be polluting the small, unnamed tributary. The test, conducted on Dec. 16, involves adding chemical tablets to vials of samples, causing reactions that change the water’s color to indicate levels of acidity, nitrogen, and phosphates. But because the water was, in Crew’s words, “too dark and turbid to show any color,” it was untestable.

“So at this point I don’t know what’s in it,” Crews says. “But it’s definitely a problem.”

Among other lines of business, Hollins Organic accepts natural wood waste–mostly tree stumps, trunks, branches–and turns it into marketable mulch sold for landscaping and gardening. During the processing, excess water that isn’t soaked up in the compost piles drains to the lowest point of the company’s yard, where it collects in a pool next to a berm separating it from park property. The park side of the berm is a steep slope, and water from the pool is seeping through rapidly, cascading down in black, bubbling rivulets until it collects in a small marsh that drains steadily into the stream, which runs dark from that point on. The side of the berm and the marshy soils are stained black from the effluent.

The day after the test, Crews speculated about what could be in the “black seep overflow” that is making its way to the stream and what impact it could be having on living things in the water.

“We definitely know that there are nutrients, coloring, and fine sediments leaving Hollins,” he says. “The sedimentation within the stream, combined with the coloring, has to be disrupting the aquatic life, suffocating and smothering bugs and fish. I would guess, based on my professional experience, that sediments and color are impairing the stream, if this is occurring year-round.”

Based on anecdotal evidence from dog walkers who frequent these woods, it has been occurring year-round, and for a while.

“It’s been running murky for a couple of years now,” says Chris Toland, who visits the parks regularly on his dog walks–and this time was trying to keep nine dogs from drinking the sullied stream water. “But it appears to have gotten worse fairly recently.”

Following the stream to its mouth at the Jones Falls, one crosses two smaller tributaries, which run clean and clear from the uphill woods until they join the despoiled stream. The stream-side sediments are stained black, and the stream’s banks are lined with downed, dead, and dying trees. In the long-abandoned railroad bed that runs through the park, the stream forms still, black pools. At its entry to the Jones Falls, it spills out in a distinct black ribbon that runs with the current for 20 or so yards before mixing into the much larger river.

Toland (a personal friend of this writer) and his companion, Mary Byrne, always figured authorities knew about the problem, they say, since the stream has been obviously polluted for so long. But then again, they note, this area of the park is so remote that such problems could be missed, or not recognized as problems.

“We never see anybody out here,” Byrne says.

When contacted about the runoff into the stream from his business, Hollins Organic owner Doug Hollins invited City Paper to visit the company’s Falls Road site, with his engineer, Rick Richardson, in tow. The Hollins officials say they are aware of the pollution problem the company is creating, and they are trying to come up with a solution.

The company has tried to contain excess runoff from its mulching operations with a makeshift stone dam built into a low part of the berm that separates the yard from the park. This runoff management system, Hollins says, is designed according to standards required under state and county permits. But this year’s extraordinary amount of rainfall–2003 is heading toward being Baltimore’s wettest year on record–has overwhelmed it, causing runoff to breach the berm and flow into the stream.

“I want to fix this right away,” Hollins says, as a pump-out truck pulls up and prepares to drain the pond. Behind him, a giant grinder is spitting shredded wood, hot and steamy from decomposition, into piles that are being pushed around by bulldozers. “Then I want to engineer something so this won’t happen again. I’ve been here 22 years and I take this seriously.”

Hollins says inspectors from the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management visited the site on Dec. 12, which is when the pollution problem was discovered.

“We went out on a routine inspection,” says Baltimore County spokesman Bill Clark, “and noted that there was a problem with the pond, and they were advised at that time that they were in violation.”

“I don’t think it had been going on very long,” Hollins contends, adding that on Nov. 5 the Maryland Department of the Environment performed a routine inspection and found nothing wrong “that I know of.”

As for the stench of the water, and its dark, turbid quality, Hollins explains that “it’s murky because, in an effort to maintain [run-off] water on the property, we’ve created a stagnant pond. The organic matter [from the composting and mulching operation] gets trapped in the pond and is basically fermented, which is why we have this odor.”

Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman Richard McIntire says he has no record of a department inspection at the company on Nov. 5, the date Hollins cites. “We have not been there recently,” he says, noting that the case “has been assigned to an area inspector . . . but we don’t know when we’ll get there” to analyze the seepage and determine the level of pollution it is likely causing.

“We should have heard about this long ago from somewhere,” McIntire says. “We can’t be everywhere all the time, but taking care of the environment is everyone’s responsibility.”

Christel Cothran, who runs the nonprofit Jones Falls Watershed Association, was notified by City Paper about the Hollins Organic situation. She notes that the Jones Falls is already suffering from fecal-coliform contamination, which was revealed most recently in a midsummer sampling her organization did at 26 locations throughout the Jones Falls watershed–23 of them were found to exceed limits for contamination.

Cothran says she is hopeful that a combination of regulatory pressure and Hollins’ ingenuity will fix the leak and allow the stream to take on a semblance of healthfulness. But her hope is tinged with a level of frustration borne of experience: “It’s just amazing, once something like this is spotted, how long it takes to fix.”

Law of the Land: Maryland General Assembly works to restore weakened Critical Areas Act

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, March 31, 2004

Shortly after Tropical Storm Isabel’s floodwaters hit the Chesapeake Bay shoreline last fall, carrying away chunks of waterfront land and destroying vast sums of bay-side investments, the Maryland Court of Appeals relaxed key provisions of a 20-year-old law restricting development within 1,000 feet of the water (“Time and Tide,” Oct. 22). Backers of the Critical Areas Act of 1984 assaulted the court’s opinion and argued that the law had slowed the pace of coastal construction for nearly a generation, and thus, by constraining new development where storms exact the heaviest tolls, had prevented further losses from Isabel. But the judges’ blow to the law, coming from the state’s highest court, was final. The job of straightening its spine now falls to members of the Maryland General Assembly, who are now attempting to trump the court’s move with legislation to restore the law to its original ecologically protective intent.

The Critical Areas Act, which bans new construction within a 100-foot buffer zone closest to bay waters and curtails it in specified areas within a 1,000-foot strip, is overseen by the state Critical Areas Commission for the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays. The commission’s chairman, former Republican state Sen. Martin Madden, was sworn in less than a year ago and immediately alerted lawmakers of his hope to firm up the act’s enforcement provisions. Then came Lewis v. Department of Natural Resources, a case before the high court in which Edwin Lewis, an apparel-industry executive, belatedly sought permission to build a hunting lodge and cabins on a tidewater hummock he owns in Wicomico County. By the time Lewis had applied in 2000 for a county variance to build on his site, which is in the critical-areas buffer zone, construction had already started.

The seven-member court’s 4-3 decision relieved Lewis, and therefore other landowners in the critical areas, of the burden to prove that their proposed building projects won’t harm the bay. Instead, local governments now have to show that such projects would harm the bay. That’s a tall order for governments to fill, say Madden and others who criticized the court ruling. Asking cash-strapped counties to prove the harm caused by each proposed project in the critical areas, Madden says, would effectively undermine the law’s intended goal of protecting the shoreline from damaging development. To make matters worse, the decision condoned Lewis’ course of action: build first, seek permission later, then claim the remedy–the removal of illegally built structures–is an undue hardship.

“The ruling turned everything on its ear,” says Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the 1,000 Friends of Maryland, a nonprofit coalition that advocates environmentally sound growth. “Twenty years ago, when the law passed, we said, ‘We all agreed that we’re going to protect this fragile shoreline,’ but now we have to come back and re-establish the intent of the law. I find that extraordinary.”

In the decision’s aftermath, Madden, like the many homeowners repairing post-Isabel wreckage, set about patching up the court’s blows to the Critical Areas Act. He has been working his persuasive magic on his former colleagues in the state legislature, and his efforts appear to be paying off: The legislation, introduced this session, is moving through the General Assembly process at a brisk pace with little controversy or fanfare.

“The main bill basically brings us back to where we were prior to Lewis,” Madden says. It clarifies the law’s overall intent to protect the bay and plugs the holes shot through the law by the Lewis decision. It also increases penalties–from the existing maximum of $500, to a proposed $10,000–for violations. And it gives local governments the option of asking the state Critical Areas Commission to handle tough enforcement cases. The measure was supported by a broad array of interests–everyone from realtors and builders to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Maryland Association of Counties–and passed, 41-6, in the Senate on March 22. The House will consider the bill after a hearing scheduled for April 2.

“It was agreed by everyone that we needed to go back” to the law’s pre-Lewis strength, says lobbyist Bill Castelli, of the Maryland Association of Realtors. “[But] everybody needed to get comfortable that the bill wouldn’t go beyond that.”

A comfortable consensus was reached, Castelli adds, after a few, minor clarifying amendments were added. Still, he points out a cautionary note about future litigation over a restored Critical Areas Act: “You just can’t predict what will and won’t get challenged in court.”

Field of Schemes: A cavalcade of Baltimore projects, done and undone

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 12, 2003

It may sound crass, but development is pure and simple speculation. One can dress it up with high-minded jargon–“public-private partnership” or “urban renewal”–but the game remains a tangled, chancy knot of land deals and debt-fueling projects aided or underwritten by taxpayer dollars.

And so it’s been played in Baltimore since Colonial times, when Baltimore Town, Jones Town, and Fells Point were first laid out in the 1730s. As historian Sherry Olson writes at the beginning of her authoritative tome Baltimore, “the city itself was to be the great speculation,” with its growth driven from the start by the overlapping financial affairs of private and public interests.

Similarly, developers today commonly reduce their risks by relying on public money to build on scarce harbor-front land. This business-government alliance, then-Rouse Co. chief executive officer Mathias DeVito told City Paper back in 1995, “is a part of our culture here.”

Sometimes this development dance has worked, sometimes it hasn’t–and sometimes it turned out differently than intended, or was never done at all. The high-end residences of Mount Vernon Place, built in the 19th century, comprise what many say is the most beautiful urban space in the United States. The high-end condo complex Scarlett Place, on the other hand, looks as much like a Lego creation today as it did in the go-go 1980s, when it rose in the footprint of a closed President Street warehouse. The 6-year-old Columbus Center sits forlornly at the Inner Harbor, an unmitigated failure as a science-based tourist attraction. Next door, though, the brand-name draws at the Power Plant (Barnes and Noble, ESPN Zone, Hard Rock Café) have preserved a striking century-old relic. Harborview Towers along Key Highway broke ground 14 years ago and is only half-built, its lone high-rise bearing a cartoonish resemblance to a lighthouse, but the Howard Street Arts District, meant to revitalize the old west-side shopping district by nurturing the muses, was never built at all.

Successful or not, Baltimore’s drive to build and rebuild has been inexorable, even in the face of the Great Fire of 1904, the Great Depression and other financial disasters, the tenacious flight of jobs and residents to the suburbs, and the riots of 1968. Housing, highways, hotels, industry, office space, public transportation–it’s all gone up, in one way or another, shaped by geography (especially the city’s waterfront and watersheds) and the resolve and resources of the rich and powerful, be they in business or government. And thus we, for better or worse, have places to live, work, play, shop, and travel–places whose stories, sampled below, echo the strains and harmonies of Baltimore’s development.

The Fairfield Ecological Industrial Park 

When Baltimore was awarded a $100 million federal Empowerment Zone grant to boost jobs for poor residents in 1994, city leaders confidently called the proposed Fairfield Ecological Industrial Park the “crown jewel” of the plan. Located on a South Baltimore peninsula far from downtown, the industrial park–a polluting cluster of oil-tank farms, factories, and scrap yards–was to become an economic engine fueled by recycling and reuse; one plant’s waste would be another’s raw material. Residents of the city’s other two Empowerment Zones, one each in East and West Baltimore, were expected to fill the coming jobs, along with the handful of people still living in Fairfield, and businesses would claim tax benefits for hiring them.

Then, nothing really happened. There were planning symposiums, community meetings and strategy sessions–even enrollment in a federal program to make environmental permitting more flexible for businesses there. Much feel-good rhetoric was spun about the eco-industrial park. Then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke and luminaries from Washington used it in speeches as a model for the economy of the future. The city made ambitious promises for capital improvements–new roads, new storm drains, new curbs and lighting. In 1997, the state passed brownfields legislation to make it easier to redevelop abandoned and polluted industrial land, a step that ostensibly would help facilitate the eco-industrial park plan.

Other than the wholesale buyout by the city of the homes of the remaining 300 or so Fairfield residents in 1998, little change came about. In 1999, the eco-industrial park was withdrawn from the flexible-permitting program for inactivity and lack of interest. By 2000, the city was already quieting on the ecological part of the equation, though efforts to bring new business to the area continued. The city has spent about $5.5 million to date on road and drainage improvements in Fairfield. A granite-slab company was enticed with a $150,000 city loan to move there in 2000, the same year that the city forgave $300,000 in debt owed by the Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse development company, which has been trying since 1989 to revive a polluted portion of Fairfield called Port Liberty. In the end, though, the eco-park concept was abandoned, and Fairfield remains the same old petro-chemical industrial park that it’s been for decades.

The Middle Branch Waterfront 

In 1724, just six years before Baltimore Town was founded on the North Branch of the Patapsco River, landowners in the area approached the legislature with plans for a town at Spring Gardens, near where the Gwynns Falls empties into the Patapsco’s Middle Branch in what is now known as South Baltimore. Their efforts were blocked by John Moale, who owned the land and preferred to mine for iron there–which he did until he died in 1740–so a first settlement was chosen instead on the North Branch. Thus, if not for Moale’s self-interest, Middle Branch would be Baltimore’s Inner Harbor today. Instead, it’s Baltimore’s other, overlooked waterfront.

The Middle Branch was committed to industrial purposes during Baltimore’s formative years in the 19th century. The Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.’s precursor in the 1850s chose Spring Gardens as the site for a gas-making plant, then later chose Westport, across the river, for a giant coal-fired power plant. The Carr Lowery Glass Co., which closed this year, first set up shop on the Middle Branch’s shores in 1889. Rubble from the 1904 fire was pushed into Middle Branch marshland, as was fill from city subway excavations in the 1970s.

The waterway’s other favorite use was recreation, as city dwellers at the turn of the 20th century chose places like Ferry Bar Park and the various rowing clubs dotting the shoreline as weekend destinations. They were always cheek-to-jowl with the smokestacks, but today the BRESCO trash incinerator is the only stack still belching.

Nascent signs of new investment have started to peek through the industrial detritus of Middle Branch. On the former Port Covington railroad yards sits a new Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club that opened in 2002, thanks in part to tax credits. Nearby, at the dilapidated city-owned marina next to the Hanover Street Bridge, a team of investors is planning extensive renovations, including a new restaurant and entertainment venue. The National Aquarium had been planning a $30 million Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation at a 7-acre city park on the west side of the Hanover Street Bridge, but it recently ran into cleanup problems.

Also poking up from the urban detritus–and the refuse and sewage coming into the Middle Branch from the Gwynns Falls and various storm drains–is an ecology of sorts. Herons, kingfishers, and even beavers frequent its shores and rotted piers, which themselves have become vegetated islands of habitat.

For the last quarter century, city planners and local architects have been calling for the Middle Branch to become the city’s “second waterfront” by creating access and amenities along its shores and promoting recreational uses like fishing, biking, and picnicking. As the city strives to solve its extensive leaky-sewer problems and also installs a debris collector to keep trash from entering Middle Branch in the first place, the degraded waterway may yet become a destination again–this time without the heavy industry.

Coldspring NewTown 

Back in 1970, when Abell Foundation President Robert Embry was the city’s housing commissioner, Moshe Safdie captured his imagination. The young Israeli-born Canadian architect had wowed the crowds at Montreal’s 1967 World Fair with Habitat, a complex of modular, mass-produced housing and retail space arranged as a self-contained community for urban markets. With residents fast abandoning Baltimore for the surrounding suburbs, Embry and other city leaders were willing to commit urban-renewal funds to try new things–even something along the lines of Habitat–in order to keep the city’s dwindling middle class. And try they did with Coldspring NewTown.

Located just south of Cylburn Arboretum between Greenspring Avenue and the Jones Falls, the project was initially designed to straddle Coldspring Lane on 370 acres and comprise 3,700 dwelling units for 12,000 people. Some were to live in “deck houses”–raised concrete, aluminum, and-stucco condominium complexes with parking beneath the homes and walkways and green space throughout–and many more in apartment buildings, including a top-entry high-rise to be built down the face of the old Woodberry Quarry. The price tag was $200 million, with $50 million coming from federal coffers. City voters approved a bond sale to insure condo buyers’ mortgages.

In 1977, the first phase was completed: 252 deck houses. They were snatched up by a mixed bag of professionals–including high-ranking city bureaucrats, architects, lawyers, teachers, doctors, and journalists. More public money was spent to lay the foundation for the project’s next phase–the NewTown part of the concept, with stores and community services–when Ronald Reagan became president and nearly turned off the spigot of federal funds that had fueled Baltimore’s urban-renewal gravy train during the 1970s. The project stalled, only a fraction completed.

Until the 1990s, when construction started on a different tack–a hundred or so suburban-style homes along Coldspring NewTown’s boundary with the Cylburn Arboretum–the isolated development was surrounded by vestiges of its failure. Mounds of earth had been moved, sewers and roads installed, foundation work laid down, but much of it was left eerily idle. Almost 900 people, however, now live in what had been uninhabited woodland. Their combined property taxes contribute approximately $500,000 per year to city coffers. That’s not much return for tens of millions of dollars in public investment–unless, of course, you’re one of the original condo buyers who scored unique urban homes for $30,000 to $60,000 with low-rate, bond-insured mortgages.

Inner Harbor East 

Three or four decades ago, Inner Harbor East–a 20-acre parcel around where the Jones Falls empties into the harbor, right next to Little Italy–was slated for a highway interchange. After that proposal crashed and burned, thanks to an epic political battle that spawned several careers (including that of now-U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski), a decade-long community planning process started to create a vision for the property.

What was ultimately agreed upon, in a plan made official in 1990–a cluster of upscale townhouses, a marina, offices, retail space, and an 18-story hotel–was “to balance all the interests of neighborhood life with the interests of commercial developers,” as then-Mayor Schmoke explained at the time. New buildings, all agreed, were to have low elevations and a street-level orientation, so as not to overshadow the rowhouses and restaurants of nearby Little Italy and Fells Point.

With a hard-fought plan in place, community activists rested easy. The city held up its end of the bargain, building roads and water lines and completing marina renovations, and then started to sweeten the deal for the property’s main owner–H&S; Bakery owner John Paterakis.

The favors started with $1.5 million in federal money, which was chipped in for a $9.2 million office and apartment complex where Sylvan Learning Systems is now based. Then the city subtracted first $1.7 million, then another $1 million, from Paterakis’ $4 million share of the costs for infrastructure (roads, water lines, marina renovations, etc.). Then, in 1995, the city gave Paterakis another $1.8 million in financial breaks, and deferred his $6.5 million obligation to purchase two city-owned parcels in the development area. But that was just for starters.

The real surprise at Inner Harbor East didn’t come until 1997. At that point, the city’s $150 million Convention Center expansion was completed, but the center needed about 1,000 more hotel rooms in order to support the expected growth in bookings. Two-thirds of the Convention Center’s cost had been covered by the state, so legislators all around Maryland were anxious to see it succeed.

To the surprise of many, Inner Harbor East–about a mile from the Convention Center–was chosen as the Convention Center headquarters hotel’s home in 1997 over two other closer sites. What’s more, Paterakis’ proposed hotel blew the Inner Harbor East plan out of the water–as initially approved, his hotel was to be a 48-story behemoth, costing nearly $150 million, with a third of the cost covered by public funds.

Ultimately, Paterakis’ Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel rose 32 stories–not quite twice the height spelled out in the 1990 urban-renewal plan–and vocal critics have tempered their complaints since its construction was completed in 2000. After all, with a significant public stake in the project, its success significantly impacts city coffers. And now it is joined by a proposal for a $130 million Four Seasons hotel and condo complex made up of two 20-story towers, also receiving healthy public subsidies. So much for Inner Harbor East having the scale and feel of the quaint neighborhoods surrounding it.

HOPE VI 

President Bill Clinton came and went, but Baltimore will bear the mark of $150 million his administration gave to the city’s public-housing program for years to come. The money came in the form of HOPE VI grants, and they were used to demolish and replace antiquated public-housing high-rises with mixed-income townhouse developments for homeowners and public-housing residents alike. Lafayette Courts, Hollander Ridge, Flag House, Murphy Homes, Lexington Terrace, Broadway Homes–for nearly 50 years, these were familiar addresses and home to thousands of Baltimore’s poor. Now they are all gone, some of them replaced with new housing–but for vastly fewer people, and less of them poor, than were living there before.

“When the towers come down, the tenants have to go somewhere, and what they do is fan out to nearby working-class neighborhoods, using federal housing vouchers to pay the rent,” according to an article in the October issue of Governing magazine. “Most of these are aging, fragile communities struggling to stave off dysfunction themselves. A large influx of welfare families brings increased crime and disorder and sometimes threatens a neighborhood’s very survival.” In Baltimore, a study released this year by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies found this effect to be the main problem with the HOPE VI program.

The critics aren’t saying the old high-rises–which Al Gore called “monuments of hopelessness”–were preferable. But they make the argument that big-money, big-impact moves like imploding high-rises and replacing them with mixed-income townhouses fails to address the complex root causes of poverty and all its ills. In fact, some call the program government-funded gentrification and complain that HOPE VI amounts to little more than a massive dereliction of duty for the nation’s giant public-housing system, which is supposed to support the poor. Residents lucky enough to obtain housing at the suburban-style complexes, though, find a lot to like–they’re new, clean, and generally safer than what they replaced.

The Public Rails 

Controversial highway plans to link interstates 70 and 95 near Fells Point, then build a bridge over Locust Point, fell through in the 1970s–but not before a portion of I-70 was constructed through a slice of West Baltimore neighborhoods. East-west traffic in Baltimore and those West Baltimore communities have struggled ever since. But part of the strain was meant to be relieved by rail-based public transportation, an idea that has never fully blossomed in Baltimore, despite its demonstrable boost to economic development in cities that have extensive systems.

Baltimore’s extensive trolley system had been phased out entirely by the early 1960s, thanks in part to the indirect efforts of General Motors to shut it down. The new generation of rails now consists of the 15-mile Baltimore Metro subway between Owings Mills and Johns Hopkins’ East Baltimore medical campus, and the 30-mile light-rail line between Hunt Valley and BWI Airport. Combined, the projects cost nearly $2 billion in public funds, with construction lasting two decades.

That price tag is nothing compared to a current proposal, announced earlier this year, to create a six-line, 109-mile, 122-station system for $12 billion over a period of 40 years. The extensive, expensive scheme, dubbed the Baltimore Regional Rail System, was cooked up by an advisory committee of the Mass Transit Administration and has the backing of heavy hitters like the Greater Baltimore Committee, a large and respected business group. But Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s administration is balking at its lofty ambitions, saying a rapid-bus plan may be a feasible alternative, given the tight state budget.

The chilly reception at the State House suggests Baltimore’s rail future, for now, has much more humble possibilities–such as a monorail to carry tourists around the Inner Harbor’s attractions. The idea has cropped up periodically over the last 25 years, most recently in the late 1990s, when then-Mayor Schmoke proposed a $210 million system that officials likened to the one at Disneyland. Others were reminded of the fictional Springfield, where the Simpsons, in a classic episode of the animated show, saw firsthand where monorails lead you–around and around in a runaway train sold to the public by a passing huckster. So, instead of rails for the Inner Harbor, the Greater Baltimore Committee is backing a $26-million electric tram system with dedicated lanes on existing roads. Either way, it sounds like tourists to Baltimore will have their public-transportation problems solved long before Baltimore as a whole does.

Time and Tide: Will the erosion of Maryland’s Critical Areas Act mean even bigger trouble when the next Isabel comes along?

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 22, 2003

Tropical Storm Isabel’s short visit exacted a pricey tribute on the Baltimore region’s shoreline. Thousands of homes were damaged and hundreds destroyed in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. Well water in many low-lying communities remains contaminated from the polluted floodwaters. Piers, boats, and boat-lifts were battered, broken, or carried away, while sea walls failed in some places, allowing Isabel to scour away chunks of earth from people’s properties. Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point facility lost its multimillion-dollar power plant and had to close down production for six days. An Anne Arundel sewage-treatment plant also lost power, sending a hefty dose of untreated waste into Cox Creek near the city line. Baltimore City’s tourist-drawing waterfront choked on inventory losses, building damage, and missed business from Isabel’s historic tidal flood, which here and there breached the 100-year flood line. In all of Maryland, estimates of total losses from Isabel are in the hundreds of millions of dollars and climbing.

Given Isabel’s high cost and human suffering, it seems almost quaint to survey her effects on Baltimore County’s North Point State Park, a 1,300-acre tract of marsh, woodlands, fields, and bay-side frontage on the Dundalk peninsula between the Patapsco and Back rivers. But Steve Takos Sr., at 80 and after five surgeries in the past eight months, has good reason to visit on this sunny October afternoon. He first came here in 1937 as a duckpin-setter for a nickel a game, and later took tickets for amusement rides. That’s when it was Bay Shore Park, a resort on a trolley line that drew throngs from around the region to play on the water. One way or another, Takos has been working here ever since. When Beth Steel owned the property from 1946 to 1987, he served as a guide for Sparrows Point executives on lunch-hour hunting and fishing trips. Today, he’s a volunteer park ranger. His long past with the property now compels him to see how it fared in the flood.

“Holy Moses! I’ve never seen it this bad,” Takos exclaims as he stands at the foot of Ferry Grove Pier, where a cluster of waterfront buildings once sat, receiving visitors and trade from the Eastern Shore. Isabel tossed around the scattered remnants of the long-gone structures like so many grains of sand, creating high dunes of rock, brick, and Belgian block stretching back into the woods. Nestled among the mounds are hefty chunks from the shattered sea wall and pier, a section of which collapsed in a jumbled mass of cement and twisted rebar. “Thousand-pound boulders were just picked up and thrown” by the wind-driven waves, Takos marvels, adding that “this may have been worse than the storm of 1933,” which tore down the trolley line’s trestle bridge over nearby Shallow Creek.

Takos has already checked out the pounding the 1,000-foot-long fishing pier took (it’s closed indefinitely) and how storm-driven flotsam knocked the support posts of the restored trolley house out of whack. But he’s mystified by what he finds further up the park’s shoreline. Large trees toppled over a retreating bluff onto a newly expanded beach, where roughly 30 yards of high ground fell into the bay. A butte of sandy earth topped with grass and stones, eight feet high and five feet in diameter, was left standing like a sentry on the gouged-out shore. At its foot, a segment of old “corduroy road” was excavated by the bay’s storm-churned waters. Constructed of large timbers set side by side, the road served mule-drawn carts bringing building materials for the Bay Shore trolley line a century ago but has been buried for decades. The sudden reappearance of the corduroy road pleases Takos: “That’s one good thing [Isabel] did. I always said the tracks ran right through here, and there they are.”

He points to where a drowned section of Bay Shore’s sea wall pokes up through the tide a hundred or so yards offshore. Once a stout, six-mile-long barrier, he explains, the wall has since become an increasingly fragmented line of broken cement and rocks that here descends into open water, forming a shallow bay behind it. “There was all high land up to that sea wall,” he remarks while standing on the edge of the bluff. “Lost all of it in 60 years.” Takos has been around over the decades to watch firsthand as the bay swallowed up the land here. With Isabel’s help, it took another big bite.

The day after Takos’ visit to the park, on Oct. 10, a storm of another sort came down from the state’s highest court and took a bite out of the law designed to protect the bay’s shoreline. The 1984 Critical Areas Act governs development in almost 700,000 acres within a 1,000-foot strip around the Chesapeake Bay’s Maryland shoreline and virtually bans new construction inside a 100-foot buffer zone closest to the water–the so-called “critical areas” where new construction is reviewed, guided, and in some cases stopped altogether. In its final word on the case of Lewis vs. Department of Natural Resources, the seven-member Court of Appeals declined to reconsider a July decision that the three dissenting judges say hobbled the act. Unless the state legislature repairs the damage to the law–and it is expected to try in the coming session that starts in January–planning boards in the 16 bay-side counties and 45 municipalities affected by it can expect to see property owners try to exploit the Court of Appeals decision with new building proposals. Already, “it’s seeping into arguments that we are hearing on the local levels,” says Martin Madden, a former Republican state senator from Howard County who in late spring was named chair of the Critical Areas Commission charged with implementing the law.

North Point State Park’s eroding waterfront has a lesson to teach about the Critical Areas Act: Government may try to legislate development along the shore front, but nature bats last. Scientists expect the coming decades to bring more frequent and stronger storms for the Mid-Atlantic, as the bay rises in step with global sea-level rises. If the experts are right, North Point’s history serves as a graphic harbinger of what ultimately can happen to shoreline development: buildings and piers smashed by the sea, once solid ground eaten away and reclaimed by flooding and erosion. By paving the way for more bay-side development, the Appeals Court’s decision on Lewis virtually assures that more property owners will face those inexorable natural forces in the future, likely losing homes, improvements, and raw acreage in the bargain.

“The [Critical Areas] Act says it’s good to move people out of that buffer area for the bay’s sake,” says J. Court Stevenson, an ecologist and sea-level rise expert at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences near Cambridge. The law, he points out, theoretically gives the Chesapeake more of a chance to rebound from its various environmental ills by discouraging human activity directly on its shoreline. But, he adds, rising seas and violent storms “show that it’s also good to move people out of the buffer for people’s sake.”

Crafting a passable critical-areas bill back in 1984 meant pulling a few of its teeth. Thousands of undeveloped parcels were legally partitioned into buildable lots before the law took effect and grandfathered in, Madden and the Critical Areas Commission’s executive director, Ren Serey, explain in an interview, but there is no way to estimate how many or their combined acreage. And the law designates 5 percent of land as a “resource conservation area,” subject to a low development density of one dwelling per 20 acres, to be reclassified by local planning boards in a “growth allocation” process to allow more intense uses. The law’s untapped–and largely unknown–potential for future shoreline development is enormous. The only way to slow that growth is for legislators to change the law.

The law’s built-in weaknesses are the source of much browbeating from people who expected it to have done more to rein in waterfront development as its second decade begins. State Del. Joan Cadden, an Anne Arundel County Democrat and member of the General Assembly’s joint Committee on Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas, voiced this sentiment with great frustration at a July 7 committee hearing: “How do we allow them to do these things? I thought that’s what we were all about, making sure that kind of development didn’t happen anymore. I thought that is what we were here for.”

“You all need to get some teeth,” chided Calvert County Democrat Del. George Owings III at the hearing. He told the story of how novelist Tom Clancy cleared a wide swath of trees down to the waterfront of his Calvert County property, “and got a tiny little fine.” “Just pay the fine and take the view, that’s what’s happening here,” Owings said.

Madden had an answer to that. “Enforcement is spotty, inconsistent, and deteriorating,” he told the joint committee. “It’s easier [for property owners] to pay a $500 fine and freely develop the property.” His solution: “We will probably look for penalties in the area of $10,000 instead of $500. We will also work to allow the local governments to refer to the commission on a voluntary basis a violation that they feel maybe they just don’t have the ability to handle because they are overwhelmed with other issues.” Madden also pointed out that the commission has no powers to strengthen its rules or enforcement powers: “The legislature has to do that.”

Madden didn’t have an answer to a big-picture gripe from the committee’s co-chair, state Sen. Roy Dyson, a Southern Maryland Democrat: “The truth of the matter is, what has happened with the bay cleanup is that it has stalled. Million-dollar homeowners support the bay cleanup without understanding their own contributions to the problem.”

The contributions Dyson referred to are actually codified as “findings” in the critical-areas act, making it a matter of law in Maryland that human activities like building and tree-clearing and their cumulative effects harm the bay, while minimizing such activity aids in the bay’s restoration. But Dyson’s allegation of hypocrisy among wealthy waterfront property owners underscores one of the law’s most noticeable impacts: rising property values in the critical areas.

The ink had hardly dried from then-Gov. Harry Hughes’ pen before the land rush started on properties within its yet-to-be-drawn border. Prices started going up immediately, and they’ve never stopped. As a result, wealthier people have been supplanting middle-class waterfront owners. “McMansions are springing up where bungalows used to be,” an Anne Arundel County planner puts it. With the monied property owners come lawyers. From 1984 until 1999, the Critical Areas Act went largely unhindered by adverse court decisions. Then, before the Lewis decision came down, three cases hit the Court of Appeals in succession, and the unanimous rulings of the court knocked open loopholes for more development. As a result, the General Assembly in 2002 revisited and strengthened the act.

Enter Edwin Lewis and his lawyer, Raymond Smethurst Jr. of Salisbury. Working for apparel-industry giants Tommy Hilfiger and Polo Ralph Lauren had been good to Lewis, an avid hunter who’s long enjoyed the Eastern Shore at his waterfront estate. In 1999 he added to his idyllic holdings, buying up nearly 300 acres of Wicomico County marshland. In the middle of it is a five-acre hummock, a rise in the marsh with trees growing on it, where in early 2000 Lewis proceeded to build a hunting lodge, four cabins, and a shed–all of it without permits and all of it inside the 100-foot critical area buffer zone.

Construction was almost over before anyone noticed. Once the authorities caught up with Lewis, Smethurst stepped in, bringing his experience working for those accused on the Eastern Shore of breaking land-use laws. Lewis didn’t purposefully break the critical-area rules, Smethurst explained. Then Lewis sought a zoning variance to allow the lodge and one cabin to remain in the buffer area. When it was denied, Lewis had Smethurst appeal it all the way up to the top–and won, because the court ruled there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show the project harmed the environment.

To Ren Serey, who’s been the executive director of the Critical Areas Commission since 1995, the Lewis ruling was a serious blow both to the commission and to zoning laws generally in Maryland. First off, he explains, it shifted the burden of proof from the property owner to the government in assessing the potential harm a project may cause. Thus, instead of requiring property owners to show local planning boards why their projects would not cause harm, it’s now up to the government to show why the project would cause harm. “That’s new,” says Serey, “and in our viewpoint, a significant burden on local government, both in and outside the critical areas, because now they, not the applicant, have to prove the question of harm.”

The ruling also flouted “the self-imposed hardship rule,” Serey argues. Now, the fact that something has already been built without permits, and that the remedy–removing the structure–would be a “self-imposed hardship,” can be used to argue that it should be allowed to stay. “The court even said,” Serey continues, “that the fact that Mr. Lewis actually started constructing these cabins benefited everybody because he could use their construction to prove that he wasn’t causing harm.” Finally, Serey contends that the court overlooked the findings of the legislature about the cumulative human impacts that harm the bay.

Appeals Court Judge Alan Wilner minced no words in his dissenting opinion on the Lewis case, in which he was joined by two other judges. “This was not just a disagreement over a point of law,” he writes of the 4-3 ruling. “In my view . . . the majority Opinion was deliberately designed, and, unless the General Assembly acts swiftly and decisively, may be effective, not only to dismantle the critical areas program but to seriously weaken fundamental zoning and land use controls generally.” Wilner further wrote that the decision was as “an invitation to the very kind of lawless behavior that occurred in this case–ignore the law, destroy the habitat and build where the law does not permit, do it all in secret, and then claim hardship.”

The majority opinion on Lewis plays down the case’s broader impact. But within days after the Lewis decision came down on July 31, Madden recalls, “we had a hearing in Anne Arundel County where a local zoning examiner had a complaint by some neighbors that a person was building their house much larger than had previously existed within the sensitive buffer area. And it was pointed out that this person had already built it, so to tear it down would be a big inconvenience, but it is a self-imposed hardship, so be it. And the hearing examiner made the comment that, ‘Well, until three days ago, I would have thought that was the case.’ I suspect we’re going to hear a lot more of that.”

The build-first, ask-questions-later mentality is alive and well along the bay. Serey doesn’t know the total number of violations found annually, but says construction without permits is a regular occurrence and that they are usually discovered after a neighbor complains. If the Lewis ruling ends up encouraging lawlessness, as Judge Wilner predicts, and if the fines imposed for breaking the act aren’t increased, the mentality is likely to bloom, resulting in even greater investment in bay-side improvements. To Court Stevenson, the University of Maryland sea-level expert, the whole trend is ass-backward.

Stevenson is standing on what he thinks may be one of the highest points in Dorchester County, the waterside lawn of the Horn Point Laboratory near Cambridge. At the bottom of the grassy slope heading down to the banks of the Choptank River is a sea wall, with a tumble of large rocks behind it. Isabel’s flood tide breached both the wall and the rocks, allowing the bay to scour out large patches of earth and grass along the steep riverbank. Stevenson has worked here since 1972 and says he’s never seen a storm do this.

“We really can’t say what will happen with these storms,” he muses, “so that’s why talking about futures is dicey.” But he does know that the seas are warming measurably on on the Atlantic, which is fueling more hurricanes to hit the Mid-Atlantic coast. “We’re now prone to storm activity that 100 years ago we wouldn’t have seen, with hurricanes just lining up from Africa,” he says. “Isabel did this, and it wasn’t even technically a hurricane anymore. Get a category 2 or 3 hurricane in here, and really get a surge in here–instead of seven feet, say, get eight feet–and there’s going to be wholesale damage.”

So the damage from Isabel, Stevenson hopes, will be read as a warning sign to keep new development out of harm’s way. And, in planning circles, that’s exactly how Isabel was interpreted. “There was a large difference between what was forecast in terms of flooding and what ultimately came to pass,” Baltimore City planner Peter Conrad explains. “In some areas of the city and elsewhere, the water came above the 100-year tidal flood line on the maps used to determine the flood zone for insurance and permitting purposes.”

Ultimately, after a lengthy public process that has yet to begin, new maps could move that line farther inland. “We may add another half-foot or foot of elevation on all new construction” in the city’s flood-prone areas in order to reduce potential storm damage in the future. This “will take several years,” Conrad says, but its impact on shoreline development could be significant. “From the city’s perspective,” he concludes, “we want to encourage development along our tidal area, but we need for it to be safe for 50 or 100 years.”

Stevenson’s research has for years now been focused on trying to help planners like Conrad figure out what more storms and flooding could mean in the context of rising sea levels. The observed rise at the Baltimore City tide gauge is 13 inches from 1903 to 2003, but Stevenson says “most of us believe that we’re seeing an acceleration, and that the rise could be two or even three feet in the next century. Unless we get the greenhouse-gas problem under control–because that’s what’s really driving the rise, the warming atmosphere due to greenhouse gases–it’s just going to get harder and harder and harder in low-lying areas.

“But you’ve got to watch yourself when talking about this stuff,” he jokes. “If you start worrying about this too much, people start to wonder about your sanity.”

Stevenson reaches down and uses his index finger to draw in the sand a profile of a house, the shore, and the sea. “Here’s what Jim Titus says we should do,” he begins. Titus is the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s top sea-level expert, and has long been involved with how the issue pertains to the Chesapeake. “He says let the tide come up, move the houses back, and then buy shore front easements to protect the land in between. But it’s not clear where the money for all those easements will come from. I think it’s more likely that people harden the shoreline to keep the sea-level rise out, with sea walls or bulkheads. And that causes all sorts of ecological problems.”

“There are choices that sea-level rise confronts us with,” Jim Titus explained during a seminar at a national coastal-zone management conference held at the Baltimore Convention Center in mid-July. “But they boil down to this question: Are we going to hold back the sea, or are we going to let our wetlands migrate inland?

“In Maryland, property owners can hold back the sea where they choose to hold back the sea,” he continued. “The general policy seems to be to encourage armoring [the shoreline] and discourage coastal development.” But, he pointed out, conservation easements in Maryland–legal arrangements that, for a price, take away development rights from property owners–don’t affect the right to armor the shoreline, so there would have to be a change in the law to use easements to allow inundated wetlands to re-establish themselves further inland. “We simply haven’t yet completely decided what we intend to do,” he concluded.

Kerry Kehoe, who recently came to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to direct its coastal program, shares Titus’ and Stevenson’s concerns about how to handle sea-level rise. But he also foresees people’s reactions when they get warning signs that the seas are coming too close to home. “Storm surges and flooding will send a message to get out of there,” he predicted at the coastal conference. “The physical impacts will start to make it obvious–erosion, flooding, higher water tables causing contaminated drinking-water supplies.” Along the undeveloped Chesapeake shoreline, Kehoe points out that “there are still plenty of potential wetland-migration areas” where bulkheads have not been constructed. “The bad news is those very same areas are under substantial development pressure–that’s where people want to live.”

That’s also where the Critical Areas Act was intended to limit growth and development. But, in Stevenson’s estimation, the law’s constraints have had limited–and sometimes dubious–effects. “I think it’s had an impact,” he says with a note of irony. “I’m not so sure it’s all positive, though.” The first thing that comes to mind is the land rush back when the law first passed, which created all those untold thousands of grandfathered tracts. Then there’s the issue of wealth and class: Rising land values in the critical areas mean the waterfront is less and less available to the working-class people who have traditionally lived along the bay. And finally, he points out–and Serey and Madden confirm this–the fact that the 1,000-foot critical-area line doesn’t move inland with sea-level rise, but remains based on wetlands maps drawn in 1972. Although the 100-foot buffer line does shift with rising sea-level, property owners are entitled to bulkhead back to the 1972 tide line.

“The act largely ignores the unavoidable issue of sea-level rise,” Stevenson contends, “and ultimately that’s going to reduce the amount of land subject to it.”

“In the long run,” Stevenson says of the Critical Areas Act, “it had a lot of good ideas, good concepts” about what harms the bay and the human role in that harm. But he says it “hasn’t really delivered” the goods in terms of lessening human impacts. “I don’t know exactly, but it seems to me it hasn’t stopped much development, even in the buffer zone.” He’s waiting for local governments to use up their growth allocations–something that Madden says is years away–because then, presumably, much of the new construction on vacant shoreline will cease. “When the growth allocation really runs out, that’s when I’ll be happy,” he says

Madden, though, defends the act’s impacts. Despite the grandfathering and the growth allocations, it still has significant muscle, he says, and the legislature is always free to strengthen however it sees fit. “We’re going to look for Senator Dyson and Delegate [Barbara] Frush to take the lead on that, based on our recommendations.” Dyson and Frush, the oversight committee’s co-chairs, did not return phone calls about possible critical-areas legislation to be introduced in the coming session.

In the meantime, Madden explains, about 2,000 projects go through critical-areas review each year, a process that sends the commission’s staff through a proposal’s details with a fine-tooth comb, looking to make sure the design and construction minimizes harm to the bay. And that process, along with the more stringent requirements in the buffer zone, has made for more sensible, if not less, development.

“It is going to be interesting,” Madden says, “to compare the damage from Isabel to affected properties that were built after the critical area law took effect, as opposed to properties that existed prior to that. Because I think you’ll find that the development that took place after the critical area law, where we protected the buffer as much as possible while still accommodating growth, had much less damage than pre-existing properties that were built within the buffer right up to the shore. There are good environmental reasons to have a buffer . . . but I think Isabel shows that there are good, sound economical reasons to have a buffer also.”

The question is, how protected is that buffer after the Lewis ruling? And if it is in fact gutted, will expensive, newly developed properties soon face the fate of the thousands of homes hit hard by Isabel–and, in the long run, the fate of Bay Shore Park. Sea-level rise and hurricanes will ultimately rule the shape and scope of future shoreline development, but for now, repeats Madden, shoring up the Critical Areas Act is “up to the legislature.”

Brown to Green: A South Baltimore brownfield becomes a rezoning test case

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 30, 2003

Race Street in South Baltimore has long been a demarcation line between working-class homes and bygone blue-collar jobs. Classic Baltimore rowhouses, block after tidy block of them, extend to the east of Race Street, while to the west lies the Spring Garden Industrial Area–acres of underutilized industrial land, some still productive, much of it vacant or cleared of structures, and a large hazardous-waste site where hundreds of tons of toxic waste were dumped decades ago.

After an April 24 hearing, the Baltimore City Planning Commission recommended breaching this divide by rezoning a two-acre heavy-industrial tract at Race and Ostend streets for residential development. If all goes as planned, the developers–1300 Race Street LLC–hope a warehouse on the site will be converted to condominiums, and that 18 townhomes with two-car garages will rise along the property’s eastern edge. With the commission’s thumbs-up, the proposal will now go before the City Council for final consideration.

The case is the first application of a developing framework of guidelines the city plans to use evaluate rezoning such brownfields for nonindustrial uses. “It’s an old Baltimore situation where industry and rowhouses come right together,” explained city planner Chris Ryer during the hearing. The quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp. (BDC), which works to spur economic growth in the city, has “started to develop some criteria for how we would evaluate these parcels” for redevelopment, Ryer continued. Known as the “Industrial Land Use Analysis,” the framework is not yet finalized but is far enough along that it could be applied to the Race Street conversion.

BDC executive vice president Andy Frank, in an interview before the hearing, explained that brownfields such as the Race Street parcel tend to lie fallow until moneymaking uses are found for them–and more money can be made from residential uses than from offices, retail, or industry.

“In many cases,” Frank said, “it is not unlikely that an industrial reuse will generate enough revenue to underwrite the cost of redevelopment. Some sites, though, are so dirty that they would never be anything else than industrial.”

At the Race Street property, the developers are seeing green in the potential for more homes in what has long been a hot market for housing in South Baltimore. Stephen Strohecker, a realtor and partner in 1300 Race Street LLC, says the new townhomes will likely sell for about $350,000, a somewhat higher price tag than the $250,000 or so that nearby rowhouses cost.

“Significant changes have come to South Baltimore since 1971, the last time the city undertook comprehensive rezoning,” Ryer told the commission, “but not enough change in the immediate area to justify” large-scale conversion of industrial land. “But BDC’s new criteria did give justification to extend an existing residential zoning category across the street to this property.”

The criteria, Ryer explained, are meant to evaluate the selection of marginal or historic industrial properties for rezoning “as long as the conversion does not compete with other activities in the area,” and, just as important, that it doesn’t start “a domino effect” in which more and more of Baltimore’s industrial land is converted to other uses, leading to a scarcity of industrial zones which might someday be needed again.

“Generally, the economy of Baltimore is changing, and has been over the last 20 years,” Ryer’s boss, city planner Susan Williams, told City Paper before the hearing. “We still have a manufacturing base, but we have other kinds of demand for land use–mixed-use, offices, commercial space. And the old loft-style structures of the past are no longer as useful for the industrial marketplace–they don’t want to build up, they want to build out. So there has been creative reuse of these older buildings.” As examples of this, she pointed to new or upcoming projects like Brewers Hill in Canton, Tide Point in Locust Point, and Clipper Mill in Woodberry.

Actually, as Frank points out, the trend goes back even further. The city’s tourism-encrusted waterfront all used to be industrial land, from Harborview on the south side all the way around the Inner Harbor East and Harbor Point on the north side, and has been converted to other uses since the early 1970s, by which time industry had largely abandoned the Inner Harbor.

“So it is not a new issue,” Frank said. “But it is new in that we don’t have as much industrial property to convert anymore, and there have been worries that there may be none left if we need it. So, about a year and a half ago, we decided to pause and get a good, comprehensive look at the demand for industrial property and determine what factors we should consider in converting more land.”

BDC hired Bay Area Economics, a San Francisco-based economic consulting firm, to come up with guidelines; the company completed a draft set of criteria last fall. “It’s still an evolving policy,” Frank explained. “But we tested the Race Street property against the criteria and we’re comfortable that it’ll be a better use. The main question was, would nonindustrial use negatively affect adjacent industrial properties? And we decided it wouldn’t.”

The surrounding residential community has voiced its support for the Race Street rezoning in letters to the Planning Commission. “The reaction has been positive,” South Baltimore Improvement Committee President Amy Grace says. “Any time we can turn an old, run-down, vacant property into something positive for the community, it’s a good thing.”

Fire Storm: The 2001 Baltimore tunnel fire still smolders

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, March 26, 2003

For three days in July 2001, chemical tankers and railroad cars filled with paper burned out of control in a downtown tunnel under Howard Street. As the inferno’s smoke cleared, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) started its work to determine the fire’s origin–an ongoing, secretive investigation whose long-awaited preliminary results, at last word, are expected to be released sometime this spring.

Unbeknownst to most, though, in September 2001 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) also began studying the Baltimore fire and obtained privileged information from the NTSB investigation. The NRC hoped to lay to rest a controversial question: Would a nuclear-waste rail cask, a heavy-duty container designed to move spent nuclear fuel around the country, have leaked any of its deadly contents had it been in the hottest part of the Baltimore tunnel fire? In February, the NRC’s results were released: The agency predicted that a cask would have survived intact. But not everyone is convinced by the study’s findings.

“The NRC’s report is an attempt to downplay the real-world conditions that might actually cause casks to fail and release radioactive materials, as we believe the Baltimore rail-tunnel fire would have done,” Robert Halstead told City Paper after the report was released. Halstead is a consultant for the state of Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects, which has battled the NRC for years over nuclear-waste transportation issues.

Halstead was one of dozens of nuclear-waste safety experts, nuclear industry officials, engineers, and citizens gathered at a March 6 public meeting at the NRC headquarters in Rockville to debate the protocol the NRC will use to determine transportation-cask safety and durability. The Baltimore tunnel fire was very much on the agenda.

Views on the risks posed to nuclear-waste transportation casks by an event like the Baltimore fire have been divided since news of the fire spread across the country in the summer of 2001 (“Hot Line,” Sept. 12, 2001). At the time, President George W. Bush had yet to sign off on a plan–which he did approve last year–to ship the nation’s 70,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel to a central repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev. Opponents–primarily anti-nuclear activists and the state of Nevada–saw in the tunnel fire a real-life episode that could be used to fight the Yucca plan.

Critics pointed out that the Howard Street tunnel was initially on the NRC’s proposed waste route from Constellation Energy’s Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Southern Maryland–where a growing inventory of more than 930 metric tons of spent fuel is stored– to Yucca Mountain. They said that if the tunnel fire had burned hot enough and long enough to damage a cask carrying spent fuel, there would be reasonable grounds for concern that potentially deadly radioactive material might be released. Though scale-model tests and computers have been used to gauge the casks’ strength, critics argued, the casks have never been tested on a full-scale basis. So who can say for sure that a real cask could have survived this very real fire?

Yucca proponents, primarily the nuclear industry and its regulators, dismissed such notions as fear-mongering. They stressed the strength of the casks, asserting that the computer models and scale testing provide enough assurance that a 130-ton rail cask will meet the regulatory standards. They also touted the industry’s long record of safety in nuclear-waste transportation: about 3,000 spent-fuel shipments over nearly 40 years, and only eight accidents, none involving a release of radioactivity.

Right around the time the NRC started to gather data about the Baltimore fire, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred, ushering in a new era of heightened security around the nation’s nuclear-power complex. A video of a 1998 Aberdeen Proving Ground test was obtained by City Paper in February 2002, showing the impact a portable missile warhead would have on a rail cask–it would blow a hole right through the cask wall to possibly catastrophic effect (“Hot Load,” Feb. 20, 2002).

Subsequent concern over the safety of nuclear waste shipments have led to some changes. The Howard Street tunnel has been removed from NRC’s maps of proposed routes for nuclear waste bound for Yucca Mountain; new maps show that Calvert Cliffs’ shipments may instead move by barge up the Chesapeake Bay to the Port of Baltimore. And more significantly for nuclear-waste safety advocates nationwide, the NRC now plans to conduct full-scale transportation-cask testing. As a result, the March 6 NRC hearing was devoted to debate over how to conduct testing, including much heated discussion of the Baltimore tunnel fire.

“St. Patrick’s Day will mark 25 years since the first time that I got involved with the full-scale cask testing issue,” Halstead said by way of introducing himself to attendees. “And in all that time I can’t ever remember the NRC holding a meeting solely for the purpose of discussing full-scale testing. So this is a special occasion.”

Halstead handed out a paper he’d presented a week earlier at a conference in Tucson, Ariz., that recommended comprehensive full-scale cask tests in light of the Baltimore fire’s intensity. “Analyses of that accident by Nevada consultants and by the NRC both conclude that fire temperatures in the Baltimore rail tunnel reached or exceeded 1,500 degrees F,” the paper points out, “although estimates of the fire duration at this temperature vary from seven hours to more than 24 hours.” The regulatory test a cask must pass for certification, meanwhile, is 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit for a half an hour. The difference between the estimated conditions in the Baltimore fire and those in the regulatory standard is so great that Halstead proposes a cask simply be destroyed by fire to see how much heat one can take for how long before it breaks.

Halstead cited a study released in September 2001, conducted for the state of Nevada by Radioactive Waste Management Associates of New York, that predicted that a cask would have failed in the Baltimore fire, causing a release of radioactive cesium gas and the contamination of downtown Baltimore.

As for the NRC’s study, which was a computer simulation conducted by the federal National Institutes of Standards Technology (NIST) based on privileged NTSB information about the fire and data from a staged tunnel fire in West Virginia a few years ago, Halstead said, “We dispute the assumptions and the findings.

“Nevada consultants were barred from attending NRC meetings regarding that report, which sure as hell undermined our confidence in the proceeding,” he said of the February report (which was actually completed last August). He went on to say that the only way to gain “confidence in this report is for the NRC to bring the authors” from NIST in for “a very detailed technical review.” A few heads nodded at Halstead’s suggestion, but otherwise his call to haul in the NIST team for questioning went unheeded.

“The Baltimore fire ought to be the standard that we look at to see if the thermal test reflects what can happen in the real world,” Halstead said. “Unfortunately, instead of having a technically objective and unbiased [NRC] report that captures to the best of our ability what happened in that tunnel, we now have a report that we believe is seriously deficient both technically and in terms of public confidence.”

Kevin Kamps, head of the Nuclear Information Research Service, a non-profit organization that also opposes the Yucca project, picked up on Halstead’s criticism when his turn at the microphone arrived. “I was amazed,” he said of the NRC report, “that the impact of the fire on the radiation shield in the container was beyond the scope of the analysis.” The radiation shield is an inner layer of material, which usually includes lead, that surrounds the packages of spent fuel cells and is a key protective element in a cask.

But Chris Bajwa, the author of the NRC report on the Baltimore fire and an engineer with the NRC’s Spent Fuel Project Office, explained that his study “assumed that after the fire the [radiation] shield was gone, and the dose rates they calculated [from the resulting release] were within the regulatory limits.” Thus, he said, the study shows that “the consequences of a spent-fuel cask being involved in a fire such as the one that occurred in the Howard Street tunnel are minimal. Our conclusion is that there would be no radioactive release.”

At this, Halstead dug in his heels. “It’s clear we’ve got a situation here where two different parties evaluated this fire using different sets of assumptions, and both stand by their findings,” Halstead said in his closing remarks. “As is so often the case in these kinds of disputes, the question is in the assumptions.”

One reasonable assumption, Halstead joked to a reporter as he gathered his papers and prepared to leave, is that the dispute over the Baltimore tunnel fire isn’t likely to let up soon.

Doris McGuigan: 1929-2002

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 20, 2002

The Brooklyn-Curtis Bay community in South Baltimore lost an ardent environmental activist Nov. 10: Doris McGuigan, a gravel-voiced grandmother who ardently believed that chemical-laden air in South Baltimore was poisoning area residents. She died peacefully at home while taking a nap, the victim of an apparent heart attack.

“She was a real force to be reckoned with,” says Terry Harris, a local environmentalist and attorney who worked with McGuigan in many battles over the years. “She was absolutely convinced of environmental problems in her own part of the city, and wouldn’t let anyone tell her otherwise–in some cases single-handedly keeping industry at bay down there.”

McGuigan, 72, first started fighting industrial pollution in the early 1970s, when her mother died after struggling with leukemia. Believing the sickness was due to chemical pollution in South Baltimore, she embarked on 30 years of activism that included battles against incinerators, for better emergency planning, and for relocating the residents of Wagner’s Point, a now abandoned and demolished neighborhood that sits amid industrial-tank farms on the Fairfield peninsula.

Even her adversaries held her in high regard. “You could not ignore Doris, and you could not ignore her point of view,” says Dave Mahler, environmental manager for Sasol North America (formerly Condea Vista Co.), which has a large facility in South Baltimore. “The chemical plants learned that you have to be pretty much open with Doris, and there was a fair level of trust between them and Doris that built up over the years as a result of being open and honest. If there was a problem, or an incident of some sort, it was always a good idea to discuss it with Doris.”

Mahler, who visited McGuigan at her Third Street home on several occasions, was sometimes on the receiving end of her gruffly stated worries about environmental impacts. “Her biggest issue was her concern about the mixtures of all these things in the air,” he says. “While we’ve all made significant emissions reductions over the years, she wanted to know how they reacted with one another once they were released. It’s a question that no one could really answer very well.” But, he continues, “I had a lot of fun with Doris over the years. I wouldn’t take any of it back.”

District Court Judge Timothy Murphy, who formerly represented South Baltimore on the City Council and in the state House of Delegates, respected McGuigan’s self-taught mastery of intricate environmental issues. “Actually, she was an educator,” Murphy says. “She taught herself so much about environmental problems and the impact of various chemicals, and, once she had mastered something, then she would bring it to us. And she had an interesting manner–competitive, without being confrontational–that left no negative impression, even on the industry folks. She wanted them to be good neighbors, and she was a good neighbor back.”

Joining McGuigan in fights over the years were four other Brooklyn-area women, known as “the Environmental Grandmas”: Delores Barnes, Mary Rosso, Jeannette Skrzecz, and Anna Bonenberger. Skrzecz and Bonenberger also have passed away over the last few years, and Barnes has relocated, so McGuigan’s death leaves only Rosso, who recently lost re-election to the state House. “Out of all of them,” Harris says, “Doris was the real leader.”