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Mobtown Beat

Fixing a Hole?

Community Leaders, City Dump on Efforts to Reopen Southwest Landfill

By Michael Anft | Posted 5/2/2001

Disturbed by a contractor's attempt to resurrect a controversial landfill on a 27-acre private site within Gwynns Falls Park, Southwest Baltimore community leaders and City Hall are gearing up for a battle with the site's owner, Potts and Callahan, and the state agency the company has petitioned for help.

Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) records indicate state support for the proposal by Baltimore-based contractor Potts and Callahan to classify the landfill as an "abandoned-mine reclamation" area, which could lead to its reopening as a depository for "clean fill"--mostly dirt and dross from construction sites and demolitions. The designation of areas as abandoned-mine sites has led to the successful reuse of deserted coal mines in Western Maryland, environmentalists and state officials agree. But Potts and Callahan's proposal for dumping on its land, a former quarry site on the Gwynns Falls' west bank, would not result in the same ecological gains as rehabilitating coal mines, activists and neighbors say, because the land poses little environmental threat in its current state.

The prospect of another landfill battle has neighbors wondering how many times they will have to fight to keep a dumping operation out of their neighborhood's backyard. "We're definitely against any landfill that could go in there and have been since the beginning," says the Rev. Edward Robinson, president of the Southwest Community Improvement Association. "We've been troubled in the past because the landfill failed [environmental] inspections and nothing was ever done [by the state]."

Lawyers representing two nearby neighborhoods, Allendale and St. Joseph's, say that by submitting the abandoned-mine proposal to the state, Potts and Callahan is trying to skirt the city's refusal to grant the company zoning and permits; both are needed to get the site up and running. "They're doing an end run," says Rena Steinzor, co-director of the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic, which has formally asked MDE Secretary Jane Nishida to reject the landfill plan. "All it is is a repackaging of their previous, unsuccessful efforts to use that site. I give [Potts and Callahan] credit for creativity, but I give them low marks for trying to sneak this through in the dead of night."

Timothy Collison, executive vice president of Potts and Callahan, declined to comment on the mine-reclamation plan. The company has said in the past that the site, which features a deep-water pond and steep hills, could present a safety problem for neighborhood children if it isn't filled in to match the heights along its western edge.

Communities surrounding the landfill site fear that the anticipated maximum daily traffic of 150 truckloads to the site would spread dust, produce noise and exhaust, and possibly introduce harmful substances near the Gwynns Falls. And they have fought plans for a dump there since Potts and Callahan bought the land from Redland Genstar Stone Products Co. in 1997 for $500,000.

After a 1998 bill sponsored by 6th District City Council member Norman Handy Sr. to place restrictions on what landfills can accept was vetoed by then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke, communities led initially unsuccessful efforts to block permits for the site, which was used as a landfill up until early 2000. By then, neighborhood groups and activists had sparred with Potts and Callahan over the company's attempts to expand the landfill from 4.5 to 27 acres.

After hearing the community's concerns, Mayor Martin O'Malley agreed last spring to deny permits for the site. A suit filed by Potts and Callahan against the city was dismissed in city Circuit Court late last year; an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals is pending, which has residents a little wary. "We're wondering whether the city will continue to fight the battle," says Kevin Zucker, second vice president of the Friends of Gwynns Falls Leakin Park.

Mayoral spokesperson Tony White says the city will remain consistent in its position. "We know that community representatives don't want hauling and dumping in that area," White says. Over the next two weeks, MDE will meet with representatives from the city's Zoning, Parks and Recreation, and Law departments, "so things should sort themselves out," White says. Attorneys for the city have complained to MDE that the state was using the city seal without permission in its literature on the abandoned-mine proposal. "There was a draft of the reclamation plan that made it appear as though the city was promulgating the proposal, which isn't true," says Frank Derr, a deputy city solicitor. "We asked them to remove [the seal]."

MDE spokesperson Richard McIntire says the issue is moot if the city doesn't agree to a zoning change for the property: "We don't move forward until we have the city's approval on it."

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