EDGEWOOD -- With the roar of trucks and front-end loaders in his ears and the stink of old coffee grounds and rotting cantaloupe tickling his nose, Mike Janouris roots through trash. For pay.
He pokes at a cardboard box looking for paint cans, shakes a five-gallon can of deck sealant to make sure it's empty -- it's not -- and picks up a piece of junk mail to check the address on the label. It had better be in Harford County.
Mr. Janouris is one of four attendants who prowl through every load of trash dumped on the huge tipping floor of Harford County's waste-to-energy plant at the edge of Aberdeen Proving Ground. They must make sure the trash was generated in the county and prevent hazardous waste from being shoved into the incinerator that provides steam for the sprawling Army post.
"I like to think of myself as sort of an environmental policeman," Mr. Janouris shouted over the noise in the dimly lighted building that is slightly smaller than a football field.
"I'm looking out for the community to make sure nothing comes out that smokestack that's going to harm anyone."
Harford is unique among the suburban counties in that landfill attendants eyeball every load of trash before a truck driver can pull off the tipping floor.
The other counties rely on spot checks of trash loads, manifests filled out by the drivers, tips from competitors and occasional detective trips to tail trash trucks on their routes.
"That's swell for Harford County," huffed Bill Taylor, assistant solid waste bureau chief in Anne Arundel County. "But Harford County does in a day what we do in an hour. We'd have to put on eight more people for that, and we couldn't afford it."
"We can't police every load that comes in," said Steve Hudgins, chief of Howard County's division of solid waste. "We rely on tips, often from competitors."
At the Harford plant, trash trucks pull onto a scale, where they are logged in by an attendant operating a computer inside the office. Then, they are directed to the tipping floor.
Under orange light bulbs suspended from a ceiling barely visible through the clouds of dust, the trucks back up toward a mountain of trash. Drivers turn the controls to lift the back of the refuse bin open and begin pushing plastic bags, many of them splitting open, out the yawning maw. Out spill dirty diapers, empty bottles and cans, grass clippings, tree branches, old sneakers, old mail and cat litter.
"Aaagh," shuddered Yvonne Hooper, who has been doing this job for five years. "Kitty litter's the worst. Sometimes, you're standing under a truck and a bag on top breaks and it's kitty litter. And there's nothing you can do."
The attendants patrol the edges of the trash, looking for signs that something is amiss. Cans or barrels that could contain paint or solvents, or maybe an envelope with an out-of-county address label. Four or five out-of-county addresses, and it's a safe bet the trash came from somewhere else, Mr. Janouris explained.
Harford charges $50 a ton for out-of-county trash and tacks on another $15 if the hauler tried to slip it by the attendants rather than tell them where the trash originated. Harford trash is dumped free.
Ms. Hooper says she catches a load from out of the county every few months. Mr. Janouris recalled catching the same hauler twice in one month.
The second time he thought he was on to something, "I was busting bags all over the place," said Mr. Janouris, who has been on the job for four years. "By the time I was finished, I found addresses in Pennsylvania and all over. I got him for the whole load."
The hauler -- whom Mr. Janouris wouldn't identify -- paid nearly $400 in fines for the load.
On a recent afternoon, Alex Masta, a driver for Harford Sanitation Service, pulled onto the floor with a huge, open trash bin on the back of his truck.
"You never know what's in these," Mr. Janouris said.
Soon, the attendant was tossing aside old sections of drywall and wooden pallets, angling for a cardboard box on the bottom of the pile. Sure enough, inside the box were four half-empty paint cans.
"These gotta go, bub," Mr. Janouris grunted, shoving the cans toward Mr. Masta, who apologized profusely as he put them back in the bin.
"Sometimes, things just look suspicious to you," Ms. Hooper explained.
By the end of the day, the attendants, who are paid $18,013 to $21,341 a year, have rooted through more than 300 tons of trash. The constant roar inside the tipping floor has left their ears ringing and the stink from the garbage hangs on their clothes and in their hair. But they insist this is a good job.
"We're here to protect the people," Ms. Hooper explained.
"We're the eyes for the rest of the community," Mr. Janouris added. "I used to have a job selling cars. But what are you doing when you're doing that? Here, I feel like I'm doing something important."