Two years ago, Brent Walls came to Potomac Riverkeeper to serve as the Upper Potomac Manager. In that time, he has been involved with cases large and small – from investigating abandoned vehicles left in creeks to monitoring the development of fracking wells for natural gas extraction to fighting a proposed quarry that would drastically change the historic town of Gerrardstown, WV, just to name a few. From the very beginning, Brent has spoken about the “positive change that can be brought about when local communities become involved in an issue.”
Brent’s profile was certainly raised when he and Potomac Riverkeeper Ed Merrifield, along with their team of pro bono attorneys, went before the West Virginia Surface Mining Board
to oppose the approval of the proposed quarry. “Since that time, I have had more and more people approach me to discuss concerns about issues in their local watersheds and tributaries,” observes Brent, “and it is helping. I’m able to help local communities develop a voice and a message for their issue while at the same time I am kept informed of developing and ongoing problems facing our river.”
Most recently, Brent has been working with Walnut Point Village, an unincorporated community just outside of Hagerstown. The residences were built about 40 years ago in relatively close proximity. All have individual septic systems for sewer and also source their drinking water from wells. Walnut Point Village is located above an area of Karst geology – an underground terrain made up of limestone caves and highly susceptible to surface water pollution. Around a dozen households are experiencing contamination problems with their drinking water as a result of having septic systems in close proximity to water wells in a karst area. After being notified about the problems, the local health department has done little to address the concerns of the residents. Through Brent, the residents have been given a louder voice in communicating their worries to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and the Washington County Health Department. Brent arranged a community meeting to bring all stakeholders to the table, but the County Health Department cancelled 2 hours before the meeting. After a pattern of inaction, poor record keeping, and little communication with residents, MDE stepped in to oversee the Health Department’s well sampling process as well as to educate residents about how to clean their water supply systems through chlorination in the short term.
Representing the residents, Brent continues to hound the Health Department and to stand up as an outspoken voice at County Commission meetings. Currently, residents are waiting anxiously as the Health Department and MDE put together a plan to perform a dye trace sample study at the site. Ultimately, Brent hopes that he will be able to help the Walnut Point Village residents connect to public water and sewer utilities and to stop the source of pollution. However, several technical and funding hurdles still stand in the way.
Brent has found that he has garnered the respect and admiration of local citizens and continues to be approached more frequently for his advice on water pollution problems. “Potomac Riverkeeper has become important enough to local jurisdictions that residents, municipalities, and agencies are now notifying me of pending issues far before these matters become public or reach the news,” reflects Brent, “I’ve started to find that my reputation often precedes me, in a good way.”
In another case, citizens along River Road in Romney, WV reached out to Brent when they learned of a proposed waste to fuels incinerator that was slated to be built right next to the river. Thermoselect, the company that would have built and operated the plant, had plans to site the 20 acre facility in the river’s floodplain. The company also claimed that the plant would use 400,000 gallons of water per day and yet would produce no discharge. This math puzzled Brent as much as it alarmed local residents. Brent attended a meeting arranged by residents opposed to the plant and advised them on how to proceed using community action to campaign against the plant. Brent can cut another notch in his victory belt, at least for the time being: citing growing opposition and demonstrations by locals, Thermoselect has publicly stated that Romney is no longer being considered as a possible location for the plant. Through community action and engagement, coupled with enforcement, Potomac Riverkeeper continues to guard the health and safety interests of the public while protecting clean water in the Potomac River and its tributaries.