CENTREVILLE – Sveinn Storm’s late father taught him when he was a boy to fight for what he believes in.
“My father taught me that sometimes righting a wrong is worth getting a black eye or a bloody nose,” he said.
It’s a principle the 50-year-old Queen Anne’s County businessman has followed – perhaps too enthusiastically, his critics say – as he has carved out a career as the Eastern Shore’s unofficial environmental sleuth – part Robin Hood, part James Bond, but always on the trail of those he thinks are polluting.
For instance, when he suspected that Centreville’s spray irrigation fields were in violation of a state permit, Storm decided he needed to do some on-site investigation, albeit without benefit of the town’s permission. In order to scope out the facility, he crawled along a tree-covered ridge, snuck across the fields to a nearby reservoir, and took snapshots of the alleged violations, all while on the lookout for security guards.
He has found himself in any number of tight spots when trying to get information to catch what he calls the “bad guys”: creeping through the forest to evade security guards, hopping into getaway cars, and doing airplane flyovers to find the best ways to infiltrate facilities. He compares his tactics to war, minus the violence.
As a result, Storm says he has received late-night death threats, his car’s taillights have been smashed, and he has been arrested for refusing to leave what he described as an “illegally closed” session of the Queen Anne’s County Commission.
“Have I broken the law? Absolutely. Have I ever done damage or stolen anything? Absolutely not,” Storm said. “In Centreville I had a whistleblower on the inside who I asked for documents and I made sure to use my own copy paper and my ink so they couldn’t say I stole anything from them.”
Some local officials agree that he has been effective, if unconventional.
“He’s the most diligent guy I know in this county,” said Mitchell A. Keiler, a member of the Queen Anne’s County commission and a restoration projects manager at the Department of Natural Resources. “He’s got that little bit of abrasion about him sometimes…I’d like to see a kinder, gentler Storm sometime in the future but we probably won’t see that this lifetime.”
Others, however, find that Storm’s brashness and the methods he uses to get his message out are more than just quirks, and that they distract from his ability to make a difference.
Michael Whitehill, a one-time Centreville Town Council president whom Storm has attacked regarding alleged connections between the town government and his engineering firm, McCrone, Inc., is one such person.
Whitehill says he respects Storm and the work he does for Centreville, but takes issue with what he regards as Storm’s penchant for “sensationalism.” Storm, Whitehill says, often “chooses to put something in the local news versus bringing it forward first for a public hearing,” a tactic Whitehill called a “pre-emptive strike.”
Storm makes no apologies for ruffling feathers.
He says he revels in catching politicians, and then calling them out during public testimony.
“I like to be able to get up there and smack them in the face,” he said. “I try to affect politics as much as I can, getting the bad guys out and the good guys in.”
Storm’s father gave him more than advice about standing up for his principles. An expert on the inner workings of the wastewater treatment and water quality industries, he passed down to his son an expertise which Storm now uses to run down violations of water regulations.
Perhaps his greatest triumph came in the spring of 2004 when he teamed up with a WBAL-TV news reporter to do an award-winning story on raw sewage leaking from Centreville’s aging sewage plant into a tributary of the Corsica River. The story led to a state investigation of some state and local officials.
Lately, Storm says he has entertained thoughts of slowing down. He has five children, including 8 month-old George, and 4 year-old Sophie, a “very understanding wife” named Leslie, and he says his health is not what it used to be.
“I might be a little crazy, but I’m not stupid . . . the most difficult part about this is understanding that there’s a risk to my family,” Storm said. “Even though your family is important, your convictions are, too.”
Storm and his wife are beginning to realize that they may need to “get away” so he can “tone down” his lifestyle. They are not only worried about his safety while out snooping, but also about his deteriorating health. Storm says he has been diagnosed with a spinal tumor and is struggling with an autoimmune deficiency.
So he and his wife are looking at possibly moving to a farm in Iowa where they can live the simple life – though for now he is determined to carry on with his work.
He owns two businesses in historic Annapolis – an ice cream shop he opened when he was 20, and an eatery – the income from which allows him to spend time on his various projects.
He estimates that he has spoken at public meetings 50 times in the last two years, and he still goes snooping when he gets a hot lead.
“I’m not going to say it doesn’t get my heart pumping. It does,” Storm said, adding with a hearty laugh, “but it’s not all that glamorous when you’re laying facedown in a ditch and there’s water going down your pants.”
Storm, who describes himself as a “green Republican” and is registered with the party, has his hand in other pots, as well.
During the legislative session that just ended, he helped to lead the push for legislation to block a proposed rubble fill from being built near Unicorn Lake in Queen Anne’s County.
Storm’s work on the Unicorn Lake legislation helped earn him a position as an unpaid legislative assistant, helping Del. Michael D. Smigiel, Sr., R – Eastern Shore, keep informed on environmental matters, a role he has played for three months.
“You can’t trust everything you receive from government so I find it helpful to have a watchful eye,” Smigiel said. “It’s my job to clear access if he’s unable to get something I need.”
Storm often tells a story about a Queen Anne’s County government official he had been riding hard for years. “He told me: ‘Every time you show up we have to run out and buy Depends,'” Storm said. “And he just laughed. It’s just a game to him. To me, it’s the real McCoy.” 04-21-06