Backing and filling in Harford

September 09, 1992

The state's recent shutdown of the Spencer rubble fill in Abingdon represents an opportunity for the controversial facility to clean up its act. The same goes for Maryland's Department of the Environment and the Harford County government, both of which failed to police the operation.

While Spencer Sand & Gravel Inc. claims to be a victim of bureaucratic nitpicking in failing to get the state permit renewed, the dump's record shows otherwise. A string of violations and contamination incidents includes dumping waste outside permitted areas, covering waste improperly and accepting illegal wastes.

When the state environment department was asked about the spotty history of the Spencer site earlier this year, an agency spokesman dismissed the violations as "a lot of nickel and dime stuff." But recently, the technicality of failing to provide an updated map to show filled areas and contours was grievous enough to prompt that state agency to refuse to renew Spencer's permit -- belated atonement for years of inaction.

The county, too, stumbled on Spencer's rubble fill. In January, the county council blindly approved the site as part of the officially sanctioned solid waste management plan, clearing the way for the state to allow an 18-acre expansion. Two months later, it rushed to subpoena state records on Spencer after learning of the chemical pollution and a list of more than 100 permit non-compliance reports on the dump.

The council is to meet with environment department officials with an agenda crafted to produce a heated session of finger-pointing. We hope the meeting, instead, produces a serious effort at closer coordinated oversight of landfills and the sharing of inspection reports.

Harford needs landfills, especially for the rubble created by the county's active homebuilding industry. Only one small rubble fill is now open in the county. If Spencer can turn itself around and meet state requirements to expand or reopen, the county would benefit. If regulators do their job, the landfill will have to stay within authorized boundaries, reject illegal wastes and operate lawfully.

Contrary to county council thinking, government-run landfills are not a panacea. Properly run private facilities can serve the public. But plans to develop part of the public Scarboro landfill for rubble disposal would help meet county needs, and might also prompt Spencer to take responsible remedial action to get back into business.

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