Residents of Lothian, MD

Celestine Brown, left, and Tracy Garrett say they’re fed up with the noise, pollution and heavy truck traffic along Sands Road in the Lothian area of Anne Arundel County, MD.

It was hard to hear Tracy Garrett and Celestine Brown describe how bad the traffic is on the narrow two-lane road running past their homes in the Lothian area of western Anne Arundel County, MD.

That’s because their voices were repeatedly drowned out by the diesel rumble of dump trucks passing by as the two women stood speaking on a weekday inside the entrance to Sands Road Park.

“Speeding all the time, crossing the line all the time. They do what they want. It’s the wild, wild west,” Garrett said between trucks.

“It’s nuts, and it’s dangerous,” Brown added. “Bottom line, dangerous — mentally, physically, emotionally.”

Hundreds of the bulky vehicles traverse Sands Road daily on their way to and from a large sand and gravel quarry as well as two former quarries being filled in and returned to nature. As a result, Brown and Garrett contend, they and other residents living along what the county classifies as a scenic and historic road are subjected to poor air quality, excessive noise and other hazards that degrade their quality of life and threaten their health.

There are also five mobile home communities in the vicinity, each with its own small wastewater treatment plant that discharges into the nearby Patuxent River or one of its tributaries. In the past few years, five of the treatment plants have been out of compliance with their discharge permits more often than not, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection’s ECHO database.

And there are two closed rubble landfills nearby — one of which is now Sands Road Park, consisting of a couple of basketball courts and mostly open fields. Both are leaking cadmium, a toxic metal, into groundwater, tests have shown.

Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman calls the Sands Road area a “sacrifice zone,” a term used for communities — often low-income or people of color — where residents live close to polluting industries or other hazards. Tutman contends that residents there have had a series of disruptive resource extraction and waste disposal facilities imposed on them over the decades, and little or nothing has been done to ensure those facilities comply with what little is required of them.

“There’s a carrying capacity, a limit to what any community can tolerate,” Tutman said. “And these guys have way exceeded it, because the concept is, if you’ve got the right zoning you can have as many trucks or as many impacts as you want.… Really, the sky is the limit.”

Garrett and Brown, who are Black, first contacted Tutman, who says he’s the nation’s only Black riverkeeper, more than a decade ago, seeking his help in getting their grievances addressed by local and state politicians and policy makers.

“We want our environmental rights down here,” Garrett said, “just like they have elsewhere.”

The two women say they fear that the dust, diesel exhaust and buried chemicals could be fouling the air they breathe and the water they drink from wells.

“You can’t prove a cause and effect, necessarily, but scientists really know that all these pollutants cause what’s happening to a lot of us,” Garrett said.

In 2015, students at the University of Maryland School of Public Health conducted a “health impact assessment” of the Lothian area and found that residents there “are overburdened with pollution from multiple sources and facilities that show noncompliance and federal and state violation histories.”

As part of their study, the students took noise readings at the reclamation sites and wastewater plants, recording decibel levels the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says are annoying and make it difficult to hear others speaking. Some of the recordings reached levels that can cause hearing loss.

According to demographic data compiled by the EPA, about 20% of those living within a 3-mile radius of the mining and reclamation sites are African Americans and 16% have incomes lower than the county average. The University of Maryland study notes that the percentage of people of color was higher closest to the facilities.

A history of special exceptions

Kyle Murray, land general manager for Chaney Enterprises, which operates Riddle Sand and Gravel, said extraction has been going on along Sands Road since the 1940s because the Patuxent River is located in the Coastal Plain, which contains the raw materials in constant demand for building roads, bridges, housing and parks.

Fred Tutman, Patuxent (MD) Riverkeeper

Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman checks out a pipe discharging treated wastewater from a mobile home community along Sands Road in Anne Arundel County, MD. 

“We don’t get to pick where the sand and gravel is,” he said. The company operates nine quarries in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, with about 600 employees. He said he expects mining to continue on Sands Road for another 10–15 years.

Murray acknowledged that a sand and gravel quarry is an unpopular neighbor virtually anywhere. But he pointed out that once the mining is done, the cratered sites get filled in and revegetated. Chaney’s old mines have been reclaimed as wetland preserves, parks, housing developments and even an 18-hole golf course, he said.

The Sands Road area is zoned for rural-agricultural land use, but sand and gravel mining is allowed with a “special exception” to the zoning code. Records show that the county has repeatedly approved or renewed special exceptions there over the last three decades.

In 1991, over neighbors’ objections, landowner Raymond Riddle got a special exception to mine about a third of 163 wooded acres along Sands Road. “This office is mindful of the concerns of residents about truck traffic,” the hearing officer wrote, “and many of those concerns are reasonable.” But he said the operator had agreed to limit truck activity to 200 round trips a day and that the facility would be “closed out within five years.”

Five years later, Riddle decided to lease the sand and gravel mine to Chaney and petitioned the county to extend the special exception. A civic association agreed not to oppose it under certain conditions, including no increase in truck traffic and extending the operation for no more than 10 years. The hearing officer, citing Chaney’s “good reputation and past performance,” approved it for another 15 years.

Also in 1996, the county approved another special exception on the other side of Sands Road to mine sand and gravel for 25 years on a tract that borders the Patuxent River. The operator there, not Chaney at the time, pledged to limit truck traffic to no more than 40 round trips per day.

By 2016, the county had authorized Chaney, which had taken over mining on both sides of Sands Road, to expand those operations to other portions of the 451-acre tract. The approved truck limit had grown to 390 round trips a day — nearly double what had been the maximum for just the Riddle site 30 years earlier.

Within the prescribed 10-hour limit on operations, that works out to a truck rolling in every 3 minutes or so to pick up sand and gravel before heading back out on the road again.

Mining has since ceased on the west side of the road, with a sign identifying the site as Sandy Fill Reclamation. Murray said he has offered to meet with residents upset about the mining operations to discuss what might be done with the reclaimed former mine site. Tutman said he met with Murray but concluded that in his opinion, “they weren’t offering much.”

Residents, now aided by the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, a nonprofit environmental law firm in Annapolis, have continued pressing the county to crack down. Their cause has drawn attention and support from the local NAACP and the Caucus of African American Leaders, a local civic group.

Officials have responded by meeting with them and pledging to see what they could do. Earlier this year, the county twice conducted counts of trucks entering and leaving the mine and reclamation sites on Sands Road and found the 390-trip daily limit being violated, according to Lori Rhodes, deputy chief administrative office for land use. In one five-day count, the tally topped the limit three times, by as much as 30% in one case, she said.

In May, the county’s zoning office wrote Chaney and the owners of the land being mined and reclaimed to say they were in violation of the zoning code, including exceeding the truck limit. The letters warned the recipients that failure to comply could lead to fines and further legal action.

Murray denied that there had been any violations. He contended that the county’s traffic counts were in error and that the company scrupulously monitors truck traffic at the site to stay below the limit.

Nonetheless, Rhodes said the county was preparing to go to court.

“It’s our responsibility to ensure they come into compliance,” she said.

But Rhodes cautioned that state law regulates sand and gravel mining. The county can seek to force them to comply with the terms of the special exception, she said, but can’t simply shut them down.

“I’ve been out to the site, I’ve seen the trucks,” she said. “But I also know the zoning allows the use.”

The Maryland Department of the Environment regulates sand and gravel mining but has received no complaints about the Sands Road sites, said spokesman Jay Apperson.

The agency did find violations at the closed and capped Harwood rubble landfill and negotiated a consent order requiring the owner, Waste Management, to pay a $75,000 penalty and take corrective actions. The site is still discharging excessive cadmium, he said.

Sewage plant in Lothian, MD

This mobile home community wastewater treatment plant along Sands Road in Anne Arundel County, MD, is among five such plants that have been in repeated noncompliance in recent years. No enforcement action has been taken. 

Lisa Kardell, a Waste Management spokesperson, said there has been an “occasional exceedance” of the site’s permit, which authorizes discharges to ground and surface water. She noted that the cadmium leaching out occurs naturally in the soil. If ingested, though, even low levels of cadmium can cause kidney problems and impair bone density and growth. It’s also harmful to aquatic life.

Wastewater remedies sought

Steps are also being taken to correct compliance problems with the mobile home wastewater plants, officials say, but the remedies there may come at taxpayer expense.

The five private plants have been in noncompliance of their discharge permits repeatedly over the last three years, according to the EPA’s ECHO compliance database. No enforcement action has been taken.

Apperson said the MDE has referred four of the cases to the EPA for potential enforcement action. The fifth facility, though needing to fix broken equipment, was not exceeding its pollution limits, he added.

The four treatment plants under investigation by the EPA are all owned by Horizon Land Management, a Crofton, MD, company that owns and operates manufactured home communities in 20 states.

Terri White, spokesperson for the EPA’s mid-Atlantic regional office in Philadelphia, said that the agency “is continuing to gather information.”

Molly Boyle, a spokesperson for Horizon, said the company is “fully cooperating” with the MDE and has made “significant investments” to the wastewater plants. She also said Horizon is “working closely with Anne Arundel County officials as the county prepares to take over operation of these wastewater systems.”

But the county remains undecided about the takeover. Chris Phipps, the public works director, said his staff is evaluating the feasibility of upgrading the plants and looking at the possibility of managing them directly or hiring a contractor. The county has been seeking less costly ways to meet its obligations to curb nutrient pollution under the Bay cleanup plan, he explained, and upgrading small treatment plants is one option.

The MDE’s Apperson said the state’s Bay Restoration Fund could pay for up to half of the upgrades if the plants remain in private hands — or cover the entire cost if publicly owned.

Tutman, the Riverkeeper, said he’s sure Horizon would welcome being rid of the liability of operating the wastewater plants, but said he’d still like to see some enforcement action taken.

In the meantime, Rhodes said the county is moving to impose a truck speed limit on Sands Road to address residents’ complaints about unsafe driving there. She said the county’s traffic engineering department expects to have that completed by the end of November.

“It’s a job to find all the tools to use to make sure the residents are safe,” she said.

But Garrett and Brown indicated they won’t feel safe unless significant action is taken. “There’ve been little bits here and there, but it’s not enough,” Garrett said. “What’s being done is wrong…. This needs to stop, period.”

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or twheeler@bayjournal.com.

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