Disposal of toxic waste baffles citizens, agencies

May 19, 1991|By Liz Bowie

While cleaning out the dusty corners of his late aunt's garage in Kingsville, Vernon Brown found two quart containers of a pesticide spray she had once used in her garden. He read the label. It contained DDT.

He wanted to be a good citizen, so he didn't just chuck it in the trash. He set out to find the government agency that could tell him how to dispose of the illegal pesticide in a way that wouldn't pollute the Chesapeake Bay, the ground water under the local landfill or the air.

He called the state. He called Baltimore County. He called Harford County. He called the federal government.

He was passed around from one agency to another, put on hold for 10 minutes, told it was someone else's problem.

The answer he got from government officials: Put it in the trash.

"The reason they banned DDT is because it never disappears [in the environment]," Mr. Brown said. "All I know is I am a concerned citizen with two little quarts of DDT and my government is telling me to throw it in the trash. I can't do that and feel good about it."

Mr. Brown is not alone. Lots of conscientious Marylanders are having a hard time getting rid of their household hazardous waste -- the old can of rat poison squirreled away in the basement or the mothballs disintegrating in the closet. Some half-dozen Baltimore County residents call their local government for advice every day.

Both the federal and state governments have left the disposal job up to the local jurisdictions. But most county governments in Maryland haven't yet set up places for residents to take the waste.

Household hazardous waste represents only about 1 percent of the nation's garbage, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But it could be an important percent, according to Dana Duckworth, a private consultant and national authority on the subject.

Some of the nation's most highly contaminated sites -- known as Superfund sites -- are community landfills, such as Beltrami County, Minn., where there is no record of dumping by any company, but where 12 toxic chemicals were found in the ground water.

The logical conclusion in such instances, Ms. Duckworth said, is JTC that the contamination results from household trash -- chemicals from old batteries, solvents and pesticides.

In communities like Baltimore and Baltimore County, where most waste is incinerated, hazardous waste can create further problems.

Some pollutants, including such toxic metals as mercury, lead and cadmium, will not burn and end up in ash that is buried in landfills. Other pollutants travel up the smokestack.

Waste that goes down the kitchen sink ends up going through the local sewage plant, which may not be able to remove the pollutants from the effluent that is discharged into waterways.

And using a storm drain is like pouring it into the nearest stream.

The reason local governments have trouble getting rid of the hazardous waste from homes is expense.

Counties that collect it spend about $100,000 each time because the law requires that they hire a private contractor to haul the material.

In Maryland, for instance, only Prince George's, Montgomery, Frederick, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties have hazardous waste collection days.

So Maryland residents who live in other counties -- like Mr. Brown -- can be left holding their hazardous waste and trying to decide what to do.

Baltimore County gets about six calls a day from citizens who want an outlet for such waste, said Eugene Siewierski, director of the county's waste management division. In several months, the county hopes to open centers where the public can bring it, by appointment.

The EPA told Mr. Brown that legally, he could use DDT in his own garden or give it to a friend to use, although the agency did not recommend it.

"I said, 'You've got to be crazy!' " Mr. Brown said. DDT was banned in 1972 after it was found to be the culprit in the dramatic decline of bald eagle populations.

The best alternative, the EPA told Mr. Brown, is to hire a private contractor to collect it and bury or incinerate it in facilities specially designed to handle hazardous waste.

But the price tag on that service is $500 on average, according to Bill Hallam, facility manager at Laidlaw Environmental Services (TS) Inc. in Laurel.

Needless to say, Mr. Brown isn't paying it.

"We get a lot of calls like that, and we don't always have the answers that are acceptable," said Alvin Bowles, administrator of the state's hazardous waste program.

The state and the EPA both recommend that when citizens have to throw a household chemical into the trash, they try to reduce the risk that it will seep out of the landfill. Liquids -- such as paints or paint thinners -- can be put in cat litter or sawdust.

If the trash ends up in a state-of-the-art landfill with a thick liner and good system of collecting runoff, the risk is far less that the waste will contaminate ground water.

A portion of trash from Baltimore and Baltimore County goes to Quarantine Landfill, which has a liner.

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