Making Howard's Trash Disappear

August 20, 1992

Is it too good to be true? Browning-Ferris Industries, the nation's second largest trash hauler, has offered to transport Howard County trash out of state for disposal. Such a thing would allow the county to close its aging landfill and avoid the politically prickly business of finding an in-house alternative for waste disposal. The idea of the county washing its hands of any involvement in a new landfill or incinerator has already tempted county officials, judging by their glowing response to the BFI proposal last week.

But before we swoon from the BFI plan only to find it wanting after the honeymoon is over, all parties need to closely scrutinize this proposal. As some county officials have pointed out, there are both legal and moral questions to be answered before Howard enters into an agreement to have its trash hauled to other states.

The question of liability is likely to be complicated and fraught with potential pitfalls. BFI officials insist that all liability would -- in the event the company's landfills or recycling facilities are cited for violating environmental standards -- be borne by BFI and not the county. But the details of such an agreement would have to be seen and weighed -- and given intense legal scrutiny.

The moral question is more difficult to pin down. BFI officials argue that trash is a commodity that is viewed differently in different jurisdictions. "One man's trash is another man's gold," says John L. Lininger, BFI marketing manager. He points out that some jurisdictions, like Virginia's King and Queen County, have found it very lucrative to have a BFI landfill in its midst. King and Queen County earns approximately $3 million a year by not turning up its nose at other states' trash.

So, the question is whether it is bad to dump one's waste in other communities, even when other communities have expressed an interest in having it. That's something for county officials to ponder. We have long supported a regional approach to solving the area's waste problems. The BFI proposal might get Howard off the hook, but it may do nothing for other jurisdictions facing similar difficulties.

Finally, Howard officials should consider carefully the 20- to 30-year contract BFI is seeking with the county. Such long terms underscore the belief among BFI officials that waste disposal -- particularly the demand for recycled and composted materials -- is likely to increase dramatically in coming years. It would be a shame if Howard County entered into a long-term agreement that would have it the loser in an enterprise that today looks like nothing but trash -- yet tomorrow proves to be a major money-maker.

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