Mismanagement at Millersville

May 05, 1992

Weary of nearly a decade of bureaucratic foot dragging on the Millersville landfill, residents of nearby communities have taken their case to Anne Arundel County Circuit Court. In a lawsuit filed recently, nearly 400 citizens implored the court to "take whatever steps necessary" to protect their communities from ground water contamination and other hazards connected with the landfill.

That the matter has festered to the point of legal action is the result of bureaucratic inaction. For nearly two decades, the state has mounted an on-again, off-again enforcement effort against Anne Arundel County for chronic environmental infractions. The most recent include operating without a valid permit or a sediment-control scheme. To make matters worse, four residential wells turned up tainted with a toxic dry-cleaning solvent.

Last week, in timing suspiciously coincident with community action and media coverage, state regulators finally stepped in, ordering the county to bring the facility up to environmental snuff within five months. This includes opening a new, $10 million disposal cell with a plastic liner and a system for collecting pollutants.

Who's to blame? The Maryland Department of the Environment and other agencies have been mulling over a refurbishing aimed at extending the life of the landfill since October 1989. Each side blames the other for having fallen down on the job. County Executive Robert R. Neall deserves credit for moving swiftly to put things rights. He's fired the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, the independent state agency overseeing the landfill's redesign, and put a trouble-shooting bureaucrat in charge.

The Millersville affair raises troubling questions. Is state enforcement this impotent in other jurisdictions? Ditto the Waste Disposal Authority, charged with providing solid waste expertise to Baltimore and the metropolitan counties? What of top managers in the county Bureau of Solid Waste who not only ran a lax operation but didn't bother to tell residents about plans to expand the landfill or to test residential wells after discovering contaminants in excavations nearby? County officials say top managers will be judged by how well they bring the landfill into compliance. This may meet the need of the moment, but it hardly seems adequate given the bumbling that has characterized the management of this facility.

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