- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The stop work order preventing the further application of sewage sludge at an active sand and gravel mining site near Malcolm Elementary School is indefinite, Charles County Commissioner Reuben B. Collins II told Malcolm residents Thursday evening.
About 50 people turned out for the meeting, the third held at the school in recent weeks since community members first logged complaints with the county of abhorrent odors and rampant flies coming from the mining site.
Applicator Synagro has a state permit to apply treated sewage sludge to the site as part of the reclamation process, adding organic matter and nutrients to mined soil to encourage growth of vegetation.
The permit is granted by the Maryland Department of the Environment and specifies how the sludge may be applied and in what quantities, and requires buffers and odor controls.
Upon being notified of the problems with the site Sept. 23 by the county commissioners, the Charles County Department of Health contacted MDE, which inspected the site Sept. 24 and issued a stop-work order Sept. 30 after determining the site’s odor to be excessive, health department spokesman William Leebel said in a phone interview.
Collins (D) related information gleaned from a recent 45-minute phone conference among himself, Malcolm community board member Stanley Briscoe and Horacio Tablada, director of MDE’s Land Management Administration.
In addition to the stop work order being indefinite, rather than for 90 days as was previously reported and believed in the community, Collins said the state is requiring the company applying the sludge, Baltimore-based Synagro, to develop a plan ensuring it won’t violate its permit in the future.
“I’m glad we’re finally getting something done because the smell was terrible,” said Donna Proctor, whose Park Avenue home sits to the north of the mining site.
Proctor said she first started noticing the smell in late July, and by the end of August the stench was bad enough to discourage her and her neighbors from even venturing outdoors.
“One of the residents commented that they had a birthday recently, and they had to throw away the cake because the flies were over the whole cake,” Leebel said.
Like several others at the meeting, Proctor is concerned with the effect the site could have on property values.
“Who’s going to buy my house knowing there’s a sewage dumping ground nearby?” she asked.
While the state is “going to look at this very seriously,” it does not plan to shut the project down entirely, Collins said.
“Short of having a tremendous legal basis, you really don’t have a lot of options in terms of being able to stop the actual permit because it’s a contractual agreement,” said Collins, who is an attorney.
MDE spokesman Jay Apperson confirmed that the stop work order is indefinite and said the department will share Synagro’s plan with the county once it is submitted and deemed acceptable.
“They did take steps to mitigate the environmental impact, and this is a compliance issue,” Apperson said.
Collins also told residents that while Tablada did not outright refuse to meet with the community directly, he did indicate such a meeting was unnecessary.
Collins encouraged community members to write letters to Tablada requesting a public meeting with MDE, “to allow the community to ask questions directly of the state.”
“I don’t think that’s unreasonable at all,” he said.
Apperson said MDE typically conducts local meetings when there is an ongoing threat to public health.
Though the permit is legal, Collins said the community has a legitimate complaint that there was inadequate public notice of the reclamation project.
“I’m going to be an expert on sludge,” he said. “That’s not something I anticipated being, but that’s kind of where I’m at with the work I’m doing at this point in my life.”
State law also allows jurisdictions to request a public hearing on pending reclamation projects. A few months after being notified by the state in July 2010, Charles County declined to have a public hearing on the Malcolm project, Apperson said.
The state contends there are “virtually no health consequences” from sludge application, Collins said, eliciting chuckles from residents.
Concerns expressed at the meeting included the project’s potential effect on shallow residential wells and the potential for a similar situation in the future at another gravel-rich site across the street from the current project.
“Do we want Malcolm to be a big septic tank?” one woman asked.
Leebel said the health department is waiting to see Synagro’s plan.
“Any of the complaints that we get we take seriously. and I think that the residents hopefully stay on top of it, but we consider everything serious that we investigate,” he said.
Several residents said the health department was notified well before Sept. 23, and it wasn’t until the community contacted the commissioners that any action was taken.
“I don’t have much faith in the Charles County health department because they ignored us,” one resident said.
“I’m telling you, that is not going to happen anymore,” Collins said.
Bryans Road resident Larreic Green, a solid waste consultant and 2014 candidate for state delegate, told residents that sludge is beneficial for plant life but can be harmful to people, animals and fish.
“Twenty or 30 years from now, how will that affect the population? Not only yourselves, but your kids?” he asked. “As property owners, you have the right to clean air. You have the right to clean water. I think it’s bad Synagro would come down here and infringe on your rights.”
Malcolm Liaison Board member Ylanda Ford said the community feels it is improper to have sludge being applied so close to homes in the first place. She and other residents expressed skepticism that local or state government would satisfactorily remedy the situation.
“They haven’t really done anything,” Ford said. “They did get the stop work order, and I so appreciate that, but there is more than can be done to stop this, and they’re not saying it.”
Ford did credit Collins as the only commissioner who has attended each of the three meetings at the school. Commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) attended the first alongside Collins.
“He has been consistent, so I applaud that,” Ford said.