Finding on landfill leak disputed Howard activists claim problem is worse

February 24, 1993|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

Research so far on toxic solvents that have leaked into bedrock below the county landfill shows there is no "catastrophic problem" when compared to common contamination such as a gasoline station leak, an environmental consulting firm told the County Council last night.

That assessment angered anti-landfill activists Donald L. Gill and L. Scott Muller, who believe the problem of the toxic solvents, which they say will eventually leak into residents' water supply, is much worse than the consultants portrayed.

Charles R. Faust, principal hydrogeologist for GeoTrans Inc., a ground water contamination consulting firm based in Sterling, Va., told council members that among the problems he has studied in his 12 years of experience, toxins appearing below the Alpha Ridge Landfill in Marriottsville are at comparatively low levels.

In addition, he said, "the [pollution] plume is confined to a relatively small area."

But Dr. Gill and Mr. Muller objected, saying that the consulting firm, hired by the county, doesn't know enough to reach such conclusions.

"I'm really disturbed at how little you've learned," said Dr. Gill, a University of Maryland medical school biochemist who lives near the landfill. "I have never been exposed to this level of sweeping stuff under the carpet."

Toxic solvents normally used for grease-cutting, dry cleaning or paint removal -- several of them suspected to cause cancer -- were found in September in a bedrock monitoring well at levels many times higher than federal drinking water standards. The toxins have not shown up in tests of selected residential wells nearby.

Although test results showing the contamination were received in September by public works officials, the county executive and council learned of them later from Dr. Gill. He obtained the results from John J. O'Hara, county chief of environmental services, in October after noticing a drilling rig for the deep well on the landfill's northwest corner.

To begin to correct the problem, Mr. Muller asked council members to push for four steps:

* Regular testing of all residential wells within a county-designated testing area. The area extends beyond routes 99 and 144 and Sand Hill and Marriottsville roads.

* Speed up the current study of the extent of the contamination, which was first discovered in shallow wells in 1990.

* Begin remediation efforts to correct the problem as soon as possible.

* Stop dumping at the landfill -- even the new cell with a double plastic liner and leachate collection system -- and hire a waste hauler to take trash out of the county until an alternative means of dealing with the waste is in place.

Mr. O'Hara said the county would stop dumping in the 12-year-old, clay-lined cell next week and use only the plastic-lined cell. The old cell will be capped with plastic in about a year to allow the trash to settle.

But Dr. Gill said that while capping the landfill will prevent more rainwater from getting into it, it will not prevent heavier-than-water solvents from continuing to leak into residents' water supply.

GeoTrans is expected to recommend drilling additional deep wells at the north and west sides of the landfill to monitor the ground water.

Mr. O'Hara said the county plans to drill an additional 10 to 15 deep wells around the rest of the landfill. He said the wells could also be used to pump out contaminated water for treatment. After the meeting, he estimated that it would take about three months before the wells are drilled.

Mr. Muller said he doubted that the county could afford the cost of drilling.

"I'll be real happy if they dig deep wells all the way around the landfill and don't find anything," he said.

The only way to stop the solvents from leaking from the landfill is to remove the trash, Mr. Muller said.

Councilman Paul Farragut, D-4th, asked whether the county could conduct "landfill mining," as is being done in Lancaster, Pa., but Mr. O'Hara said the idea was "probably not viable."

Such operations, which extract recyclable material from landfills, must be done in conjunction with an incinerator, Mr. O'Hara explained. Most council members have said they are uncomfortable about allowing an incinerator in the county.

Also, mining could take as long to clear the landfill as filling it did, and during that time it would remain open to rainfall, Mr. O'Hara said.

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