Environmental Justice on the Patuxent: River Communities Fight Industrial Pollution

Fred Tutman, Patuxent Riverkeeper, on his home river. Courtesy of Patuxent Riverkeeper.

A tall poplar shades the front drive of Fred Tutman’s farm, land that has been in his family for generations.

From a rope Tutman has suspended a recycled oxygen tank he uses as a gong, among other wind chimes on the 160-acre property. According to family lore, he says, that poplar was the hanging tree.

“[In the early 1900s], this is where the county sheriff would pass the hat to do lynchings for extra money, and the last guy they strung up, they say, put a hex on him.”

Whether the man was cursed or not, he lost the farm. It was picked up for a song in 1926 by Tutman’s great grandfather, a Black man.

Today, Tutman, 63, protects that legacy as the Patuxent Riverkeeper, the only African American riverkeeper in the United States. “[The Patuxent] was my home river, the river I grew up swimming in as a boy, the river nearest the house,” he says.

Tutman’s great grandfather kept the land in the family, selling off parcels when his daughters married. For years they farmed tobacco and grew vegetables. Eventually, Tutman’s father, a clinical psychologist from Baltimore, married the farmer’s daughter. His father also worked as a Peace Corps administrator, and they moved for a time to Sierra Leone, and Tanzania and back and forth to the farm.

Tutman family farm, with infamous hanging tree. Courtesy of Patuxent Riverkeeper.

After a long string of jobs in the media, a Ford Foundation story-telling project with traditional healers in West Africa, and in mid-career, a pivot to law school, Tutman says he wanted a career change. He built his house beside the hanging tree in 1991, but eventually saw his life’s work more connected to the river and the riverfront towns along the river’s 115-mile journey into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Patuxent, which bisects the western shore north to south, is the longest and only deep river entirely in the state, as deep as 190 feet in places. In other spots it’s more like a wading creek because of the impact from surface mining and farming. The river has beaches, fisheries and wildlife. Its waters are also plagued with dead zones, the product of pollution from development, industrial uses, and 36 waste water treatment plants.

Patuxent Riverkeeper, grass-roots hub for river protection

But in 2004 the Patuxent didn’t have a dedicated riverkeeper. Tutman wanted the job, and left law school in his final year to start the Patuxent Riverkeeper, affiliated with a global network called Waterkeeper Alliance.

From its visitors center on Nottingham Road in Upper Marlboro, the group has evolved to include a public access dock at its headquarters and citizen cleanups on a dozen sites across seven Maryland counties. The group is also the grass-roots hub for the Patuxent Water Trail, custodian of 40 public access sites and a volunteer crew called the Roughnecks. “They are a select bunch. They clear snags, put up signs, maintain campsites, and bushwhack through log jams to open a free-flowing river,” Tutman says.

As the only African American riverkeeper, among roughly 180 in the network nationwide, Tutman is also among the few African Americans in leadership positions in mainstream environmental groups.

40 acres and a mule

Tutman says his activism is infused with a perspective and cultural mindset distinctly African American.

“My worldview as an African American is that [I am] inherently skeptical of government promises. I think that comes with a [Civil War] package known as 40 acres and a mule. We’re still waiting.”

He says African Americans regard the environment through a broader lens.

“It’s not just about the science as most mainstream organizations would like you to believe. You cannot just isolate the science and ignore the inherent unfairness or justice, or other overlapping issues that Black or Brown communities face.”

At a Prince George’s County Planning Board meeting a few years ago, with storm water requirements for a proposed big box store on the agenda, an African American woman, who also happened to be an elected official, spoke up, in Tutman’s retelling, with the comment, “I don’t care about clean water. That’s what white people want. What we really want are the jobs we can get from the facility.”

When he talked with the woman afterwards, Tutman says, she wasn’t saying that they’d rather drink dirty water. “[But] that the issue of water quality is inseparable from the issue of the economic plight of the community. In white communities I think activism towards water can be isolated away from social justice and racism and economic justice issues.”

So, he says, his focus is to respond to issues that bubble up from local communities, and he works to resolve them, sometimes in collaboration with other non-profits and legal partners, as in Eagle Harbor — a small, largely African American community next to the massive Chalk Point power plant (which its owner, GenOn, has said it plans to close by June 1).

“We’ve helped secure grants for environmental improvements like buffer protection, flood control and even a tourism plan for the town,” Tutman says.

They also continue to monitor coal ash waste from a landfill in Brandywine, a town where 70% of residents are Black. That landfill is ranked as the seventh most contaminated of 265 sites in the country, according to a 2019 report by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earth Justice.

Heavy truck traffic, mines on state-labeled scenic road

In 2008, Tracy Garrett, a psychologist from Lothian, and her neighbor Celestine Brown, a retired government worker, from nearby Harwood, approached Tutman with long-standing pollution complaints.

They singled out Sands Road close to their homes and across the river from Tutman’s farm. It is labeled scenic on highway maps. But these days, the ethnically diverse community of modest means with mobile home parks and single-family homes is not scenic.

“We want change,” Garrett says. “We’re tired of all the trucks. We’re tired of the pollution, the traffic, the noise.”

When Tutman took a closer look, he saw gravel pits from the mid-1960s that he says, “have ripened into dumping sites at multiple facilities with forever special exceptions. No one seemed to be monitoring or even complying with zoning restrictions or permits.”

And, he says, as a witness to what he calls a sacrifice zone, “[Anne Arundel] County doesn’t really seem to have a perspective on the cumulative burden. We need to call [the permits] up for review to reflect current day conditions, to review their special zoning exceptions.”

Whether that’s done in court or not he is not saying. “We certainly have sufficient grounds under the existing laws,” he says.

Garrett, a life member of the NAACP and its environmental chair in Anne Arundel County, has lived in a home on Sands Road, across from a gravel pit, since 1967. She is especially unnerved by the truck traffic, which she says has gotten steadily worse over 50 years.

“And you’re seeing all these trucks and not just dump trucks, but now semi-trucks, with all this stuff coming into your neighborhood.”

“One [count] said that in an hour there were like 80 trucks. That’s a lot of trucks. We put up with that all day, every hour,” says Celestine Brown, referring to truck counts done by the Anne Arundel Department of Public Works.

Neighbors seek relief from pollution, accidents, truck traffic, along Sands Road in Anne Arundel County. Courtesy of Patuxent Riverkeeper.

The residents, and Anne Arundel County, are hard-pressed to know what’s in the trucks, nor their exact number, as the operators are reluctant to open their books and hand over the logs, said Lori Rhodes, assistant planning and zoning officer for the county, who met with residents in March.

Neighbors organize, gain partners

Brown and Garrett began to organize in protest. In 2015 they collaborated with a student team from the University of Maryland and the Patuxent Riverkeeper to publish a health impact assessment of the LothianHarwood area.

Their report lists 33 industrial sites, 22 in operation, including mining and disposal sites, all within five miles of one another. Two landfills in the review had histories of cancer-causing contaminants above allowable health levels.

The assessment concludes, “Residents are overburdened with noise pollution and with pollution from multiple sources and facilities that show noncompliance and federal and state violation histories.”

The work got the attention of the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, and Namati, a global non-profit that helps grass-roots communities win long-standing battles, like those in Lothian-Harwood, and they allied with Patuxent Riverkeeper to strategize moving forward.

Jay Monteverde, U.S. Environmental Justice Program Director for Namati, says the law, justice and equity is on the community’s side.

“This wouldn’t happen in a wealthier part of the county. You’re not going to [need] multiple rounds of community activism to get their local government to respond to them, to enforce the law, whether it is a new hearing or to review permits. These are things that the County absolutely has authority to do.”

Call for relief, site closures

In a letter to the county executive last August, citizens called for closing three especially problematic facilities. Under their continued operation, they said, “We are suffering from public safety hazards, poor air quality, and heavy truck traffic that severely degrades our quality of life.”

Since, the county has hosted had two virtual meetings with citizens. The last, in March, was attended by Rhodes and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D).

Pittman understands the citizen frustration with the sand and mining operations, which are allowable in residential areas. He says he will work to bring those operations into compliance with their permits. “It’s absolutely true that past administrations have looked the other way and allowed  them to operate without compliance, and we’re going to hold them to the letter of the law.”

When Rhodes brought the matter up to the County Office of Law she said she was told by counsel, “If we were to take this to court, that we would probably lose.”

Tutman said that in the March meeting county officials urged citizens to contact the operators to work out some accommodations.

Rhodes told Maryland Matters, “If they [the residents] decide to meet with business owners then they[can] come up with some sort of private agreement to hold them accountable.”

Monteverde argues the law is with the community.

“Justice and equity are on the community side. They need to keep pushing until they can enjoy the rights and freedoms and safety and peace of mind that the law says that they should have.”

Garrett says it is the county’s obligation to govern, to protect their health and safety. “That is what public servants do. They work for the public.”

Brown, for her part is tired of waiting, “I have my 91-year-old mom, my son, his wife and kids here. I have a lot of lives to protect here. And we want something done.”

Rhodes has promised citizens a follow-up meeting in May with a strategy. She says, she agrees, that talk is cheap. “They want some concrete commitments. And, so that’s something that we have to follow through on.”

Garrett remains cautiously optimistic.

“We’ve got [the county’s] attention. Now we want intention. It’s been so unfair and inequitable for so long.”

Rosanne Skirble is a freelance writer in Silver Spring