January 27, 2012
Heaven help the private citizen who owns property where some orange substance is leaching into a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. And goodness knows how fast authorities will descend on a city homeowner whose backyard puttering sends clouds of dust billowing skyward.
But what if it’s a government-owned property or a government-sanctioned procedure? Well, that’s different, it would seem.
This month, we’ve been treated to two separate, potential environmental threats, and Hagerstown and Washington County responses to these threats do not inspire confidence.
Most unnerving is notice that a toxic tea from an old Washington County landfill is finding its way into the Conococheague Creek. Based on tests, this does not appear to represent a health threat, although it is never comforting to hear that even low levels of arsenic and paint thinners are seeping out of the ground.
On the heels of that news, residents of Hagerstown’s East End found their cars and homes bathed in a heavy layer of dust, after a section of the old hospital came down, an event demolition crews described as “controlled.”
Neither of these episodes rose to disaster levels by any means, but the governments that are supposed to protect us and keep us informed failed to deliver.
Anglers and giggers on the Conococheague say they noticed the acidic runoff and reported it, but that Washington County failed to respond. It wasn’t until pressed by the newspaper that officials admitted there might be something of a problem.
In the event of the hospital, if we take crews at their word that this was a planned event, shame on the city for not requiring or issuing advance warning to nearby neighborhoods. This isn’t specifically a city project, but it is a major job that the city has been involved with every step of the way. It had a clear obligation to give neighbors the chance to cover up anything that might be affected by dust and to make sure their children and pets were inside.
We would make one additional point: Local governments hurt themselves when they suppress environmental issues. Not only do they lose credibility with the public, which will naturally wonder what else they might be keeping under wraps, but also the Maryland Department of the Environment is often more than happy to step in when local governments don’t keep their own houses. When the MDE gets involved, things can become more difficult and more expensive fast. Better that local governments act quickly and openly when they receive a complaint, and it’s better that they anticipate residents’ concerns whenever possible.
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