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Soil Saved?

Posted 5/2/2001

The wheels of environmental justice turn slowly, but sometimes the vehicle of reform arrives at its destination. Which is a lofty, metaphorical way of saying that the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), bureaucracy that it is, occasionally gets around to punishing those who punish the local ecology.

After Highlandtown residents and the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic complained nearly a year ago about Soil Safe Inc. (Mobtown Beat; June 14, 2000; www.citypaper.com/2000-06-14/mobs.html), MDE finally came down on the East Baltimore dirt-recycling firm last month. Well, sort of. In a consent order, MDE accused Soil Safe of exceeding the permitted amount of pollutants in its discharges into a tributary of Herring Run, a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. State inspections last year at the firm's East Fayette Street site--where it reconditions petroleum-contaminated soil for use as fill dirt on highway and building-construction projects--revealed sediment being washed into storm drains and excessive pH in water in the company's holding ponds. Soil Safe was fined $7,000.

While they say they welcome the state action, critics of the company, which has had a history of similar and worse environmental violations over the past decade (one violation earned Soil Safe a $40,000 fine), see the pond as decidedly half-full. The UM law clinic's Wade Wilson notes that federal regulations allow for fines of $27,500 per day for violation of the Clean Water Act. "Soil Safe grosses $600 for every dump truck [full of soil] that comes in there," Wilson says. "Seven thousand dollars isn't much of a deterrent." (Walter Kennell, Soil Safe's president, could not be reached for comment.)

On the plus side, Wilson said, MDE is promising more inspections of the Soil Safe site. "I think they're getting off lightly," he says. "But if [the consent order] leads to more compliance inspections, then it can be a good thing."

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