The county admits it dumped 2.5 million more tons of trash and dirt at the Millersville Landfill than is allowed under state law.
But digging up the decaying refuse and moving it may cost the county as much as $155 million and jeopardize public health, according to a county feasibility study. The study, forwarded to the Maryland Department of the Environment last week, recommends that the illegal refuse -- the equivalent of 125,000 dump truck loads -- be left alone.
The MDE cited the county April 15 for exceeding approved elevations in three disposal cells, or areas, and other environmental violations. The county was asked to study the feasibility of lowering the height of the old cells to 177 feet, slightly higher than the landfill's natural elevations.
The state also ordered the county to replace those three cells by Sept. 12 with a new, environmentally safe cell. Last week, the MDE denied a request to extend the deadline 51 days.
"It should never have gotten above tree-top level," said County Council Chairman David Boschert, a Crownsville Democrat whose district includes the landfill. "My opinion is that it should be brought back down."
But the study found that when the cells are closed this fall, their elevation will range from 225 to 245 feet. The study was prepared by GBB, a Falls Church, Va.-based consultant group that has coordinated the county's 3-year-old application for a new landfill permit. The permit would have allowed elevations of 303 feet.
The study recommends that the cell heights not be lowered.
To bring the elevation down to 177 feet, the county would have to excavate more than 2.5 million tons of malodorous material at a cost estimated at between $106 million and $155 million. Such an undertaking could require four years or more and would delay the installation of environmental safeguards, the report said.
The excavation also could pose serious health risks and generate severe odor problems. Exposing the trash to the elements, especially rain, would increase ground water contamination and release contaminants to the air, the study said.
Landfill employees probably would be required to wear bulky, protective suits and respirators, increasing the risk of industrial accidents as well, the report said.
By contrast, closing those areas at a final height of 225 feet would cost about $6 million, primarily for a plastic cap to prevent rain from picking up pollutants and contaminating the ground water below, the study said. The cap and other environmental safeguards could be in place within two years, it said.
The growing mound of trash at the Burns Crossing Road facility prompted the initial protests of neighboring residents. "That's one of the things that triggered it," said John Scofield, chairman of the Millersville Landfill Citizens Advisory Committee. "We said, 'Hey,that's not right.' "
Now, Scofield said he is on the "horns of a dilemma. I know there is a problem with moving trash, but I would still like to see that hill chopped in half."
It is ironic, Scofield said, that a few months ago, the county had plans to dig up four still older cells and pile that trash on top of cells 5, 6 and 7.
"It boggles me that this report is coming from the same county that wanted to move those other cells a few months ago," he said.
The MDE said an extension of the Sept. 12 deadline is unnecessary because the county has made substantial progress erosion controls and grading.
The county also plans to offer a $150,000 bonus if private contractors complete the new disposal area on time. A penalty would be imposed if the contractors miss the deadline.
"These incentives should be given time to work before extensions . . . are considered," said Richard W. Collins, director of the Hazardous and Solid Waste Management Administration, said in a June 4 letter.
The county could resubmit its request for an extension if circumstances change, Collins added.
If the county cannot meet the state deadline to open the new cell, it will begin shipping trash to out-of-state facilities through a private waste hauler. In a May 29 letter to the state, Thomas H. Neel, director of the county Department of Utilities, said the county will retain a private hauler by mid-August.
If the private hauler is used, it could cost the county as much as $1.3 million a month, or $44,000 per day.
The county could save money by diverting up to 350 tons of trash every day to the Sudley Landfill in South County, according to a county contingency plan. Millersville now receives about 1,100 tons per day; the much smaller Sudley takes about 150 tons per day.
The MDE is reviewing the county contingency plan.