The nation's second-largest trash hauler has made an offer that may be hard to refuse: Close the county landfill and let a private company worry about where to put the trash.
"That sounds good to me. Whether it works or not, I don't know," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker of the offer made last week by Browning-Ferris Industries.
BFI, a $3 billion-a-year Houston firm, told the county's Solid Waste Advisory Committee Wednesday that it could guarantee per-ton prices over the next 20 to 30 years to remove waste from the county.
Those prices would only be determined when and if the county asks for bids for such an arrangement, committee members were told.
The county now charges a tipping fee of $55 a ton at its Alpha Ridge Landfill in Marriottsville. The fee is calculated to cover operating costs and debt service on the facility, which is expected to last until 2008.
"We're not going to put a landfill in your county. We're not going to put an incinerator in your county," said John L. Lininger, BFI marketing manager for Maryland and Delaware.
The company said that after trash is collected, it could be dumped at a transfer station and then taken from the county to be recycled, composted, incinerated or dumped again in one of six regional landfills BFI owns or is developing.
The committee hopes to develop recommendations for a county solid waste management plan by the end of the year, said John O'Hara, chief of the Bureau of Environmental Services.
The committee has sought and received suggestions from a variety of companies that deal with waste, but BFI's proposal is the first such long-term arrangement Mr. O'Hara said he has heard of.
"I think this is a good way to do it financially, perhaps, but I think we ought to direct the waste stream," said committee member Scott Muller. That would mean dictating the percentages to be ** landfilled, composted, recycled or burned.
Mr. Lininger said the county could do that, but "when you limit our ability to be creative, you limit our ability to do it for the best dollar."
Mr. Muller, who lives next to the Alpha Ridge Landfill and opposes its expansion, said he did not want to subject others to the county's trash.
With depressed recycling markets, dumping for $55 a ton at the county landfill may be the cheapest way to dispose of most things today, but BFI expects stronger markets for recycled products in the future, said Kenneth Wishnick, a divisional vice president for BFI's Atlantic Region.
If the BFI plan for the county's trash involved dumping it in landfills elsewhere, that would mean wrestling with the ethical and legal questions of sending Howard County trash to landfills in Virginia, Pennsylvania or Ohio.
One of the questions central to the debate is, "Should the county take care of its own?" Mr. Ecker says. "I sort of feel like, as long as we can, we should. But that's something we're going to have to deal with."
BFI touts its regional landfills as money-makers for the areas that host them. Mr. Lininger said one host community could get $20,000 to $25,000 a day for receiving trash from afar. BFI estimates that a proposed landfill it wants to build on 420 acres in King and Queen County, Va., would net the county government $2.5 million to $3 million a year -- as much or more than it takes in in property taxes, said King and Queen County Administrator Charles W. Smith. However, the landfill's construction is being blocked by an opposition group's federal lawsuit.
Some panel members asked how Howard would be liable for its trash once it leaves the county.
Mr. Lininger said that BFI had been operating landfills since 1970, and some of its older sites have been cited for harming the environment. BFI has been ordered by the federal government to pay for cleanup, but none of the municipalities involved has had to pay to correct problems. "If they can bond themselves and can give us a long-term program, I would be all for it," said County Councilman Charles Feaga, a Republican who represents the western county. "It sounds like it could be a real possibility."