BALTIMORE – Paul Stancil has a nose for hazardous materials. It’s the size of a shoebox, it’s electronic and it might just save his life.
As the chief investigator for the Environmental Crimes Unit in the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, Stancil uses his electronic “nose” to sniff out toxic vapors at crime scenes.
The unit — three state troopers, two lawyers, a law clerk and two office staffers — was in the news this week when it cited five Baltimore painting contractors on charges that they let lead paint and solvents run into storm drains.
“You’ve got to have a special kind of fortitude and interest in it,” said Carolyn H. Henneman, chief of the Criminal Investigations Division that oversees the unit. “We fondly refer to (environmental crimes) as the green slime cases.”
The unit, which draws its funding from the Maryland State Police, the Department of the Environment and the Attorney General’s Office, has been around since 1982.
For its first five years, the unit was focused heavily on industrial concerns, largely investigating crimes that involved hazardous wastes, Stancil said. Since then, he said, it has expanded to include less-exotic crimes such as illegal landfills and tire dumping, and smaller businesses like the Baltimore painting contractors.
Those five contractors were charged with wastewater and licensing violations in connection with “power washing” operations that officials said allowed lead paint to run into Maryland waters last fall.
In power washing, contractors apply caustic chemical solutions to a painted surface, then blast the solvent and the paint off with a high-pressured stream of water. The procedure is in demand from owners of older rowhouses in Baltimore neighborhoods who want exposed brick facades.
The indictments followed surveillance by the environmental crimes unit and chemical tests that found traces of lead in the runoff. Henneman said the unit’s work typically involves as much law and science as policing. “The nature of the crimes is to cover up and there needs to be an unraveling,” she said.
The team is ready to respond anywhere in the state when it gets wind of a criminal environmental violation. Stancil heads the scientific knowledge, performing various tests, the state troopers provide arrest and fire powers, while the two prosecutors lead the legal case.
Troopers rotate through the task force, moving on to other assignments after two to three years, “seeding the state” in the process, Stancil said. “Something might happen in Elkton or Rockville and an alum,” of the unit will identify clues that might otherwise go unnoticed and call in a tip, he said.
In the past year, the unit reviewed 124 complaints, opened 79 cases and closed 29 investigations, Henneman said.
Although it will not ignore violations by “Harry the homeowner,” the unit mainly investigates businesses.
“Before we go final with a case, we need to find some type of malice,” that constitutes criminal behavior, said Assistant Attorney General John Lilly, who is assigned to the team.
The unit is tucked away in a wing of the third floor of the Maryland Department of the Environment building in Dundalk. Outside, smokestacks line the horizon, pushing pillars of white smoke into the sky.
The location “keeps the work at hand in mind,” Henneman said.
Maryland State Police Cpl. David Heslep, a six-year veteran of the police force, said he vied for a position on the environmental crimes unit for “about a year.” His previous eight years as an emergency medical technician and three years of chemistry as an undergraduate helped him get a spot with the team.
Despite his civilian clothes, Heslep retains the demeanor of a state trooper. He stands at parade rest when introduced and carries a 9mm service pistol in a shoulder holster.
An avid fisherman — he proudly displays a picture of himself with a 39- inch rockfish he caught on the bay — he said he takes a personal interest in protecting the water.
Heslep shares a zeal for the job with the other members of the team, who seem to enjoy the combination of sleuthing, science and prosecution.
Lilly, who founded an environmental law review at the University of Baltimore and “maximized environmental law electives” while studying there, calls the assignment his dream job. “It’s why I went to law school,” he says.
Stancil, too, loves the work. “It amazes me that they pay me to do it sometimes.”