Scientist stirs up officials over toxin-leaking landfill

May 23, 1993|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

Donald L. Gill's specialty is what makes people twitch.

Dr. Gill, a professor of biological chemistry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, has for 11 years been studying how the minutest trace of calcium makes cells operate.

It controls cell growth, it makes muscle cells contract, it makes heart cells beat and it makes neural cells send messages to the brain.

At home in Marriottsville, Dr. Gill has injected his own dose of activism into the toxin-leaking Alpha Ridge Landfill, causing plenty of twitching in county government.

"Things are moving much faster than I even dared hope," he says of the recent successes gained by landfill opponents, "but the battle is not won yet."

A study aimed at expanding the landfill, which got Dr. Gill and fellow neighborhood activist L. Scott Muller into the fight in the first place, was dropped by County Executive Charles I. Ecker in February.

On May 11, Mr. Ecker proposed bringing public water to the landfill area, a move that would satisfy the most vital of the landfill opponents' demands. The county executive has appointed the two activists to Alpha Ridge Landfill Advisory Committee, which is charged with keeping area residents informed about landfill testing.

Despite Dr. Gill's opposition to the expansion study, and his sometimes-bitter criticism of the executive, Mr. Ecker praises Dr. Gill for pushing solid-waste planning into public prominence.

"It's one of our most pressing problems, and nobody cared about it. I think Dr. Gill has helped bring it to the public's attention," Mr. Ecker says.

Confrontational approach

Bearded, bespectacled, balding and British, Dr. Gill looks the part of the quintessential scientist and academic.

But get him talking or writing about the landfill that's a couple miles from his home, about the government's broken promises and about the threat of contaminated drinking water, Dr. Gill sounds more like Nathan Hale.

A letter Dr. Gill wrote to The Sun a year ago was a blistering salvo against County Council members Paul Farragut, Darrel Drown and Shane Pendergrass for approving money to study the expansion of Alpha Ridge Landfill "at the very time Alpha Ridge is shaping up to become the worst toxic waste disaster in Maryland's history.

"Howard countians, rise up and tell these so-called representatives we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore! We're sick and tired of mindless avoidance policies on an issue that's going to destroy our county. No more landfills, anywhere in the county. We can do a lot better. And we can do a lot better than Drown, Farragut and Pendergrass," Dr. Gill wrote.

Mr. Muller, Dr. Gill's partner in the landfill fight, says Dr. Gill's strident tone counters his more measured approach.

"He appeals to people's emotions," says Mr. Muller. "I think I try to appeal to people's reasoning, which may not be the best way to go."

Being the reasonable one, it's not surprising that Mr. Muller was appointed by Mr. Ecker to the county's Solid Waste Advisory Committee in 1991.

'We live for the outdoors'

Despite his frequent jousts with county politicians, Dr. Gill can't vote for or against them. Born in London, he is a British subject with permanent U.S. residency.

In fact, the 39-year-old scientist had no intention of staying when he and his wife, Julie, moved to the Baltimore area from England in 1979.

But after a three-year fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Dr. Gill was offered his own laboratory and a teaching post at the university's biochemistry department in Baltimore, and he decided to make his home here.

Now he heads the university's biochemistry graduate program and a staff of seven conducting research in the way calcium controls cell activity. Five years ago, the Gills moved from Catonsville to a wooded five-acre lot in Marriottsville next to Patapsco State Park.

"We live for the outdoors," Dr. Gill says as he gestures toward a path to a tree-shaded screened house where he, Ms. Gill and their 5-year-old son Jonathan spend much of their free time.

"We're just devoted to everything that's alive," Dr. Gill says. "Everything that's wild has a right to exist, and we should try to protect them as best as we can."

He says that while there are many ways that people harm the environment, "the landfill is sort of a blatant one."

VOCs an avocation

Dr. Gill can jump quickly from an animated lecture on cell receptors, on which he is truly an expert, to one about volatile organic compounds, which he has made his avocation.

VOCs, as they're called by environmental engineers, are the solvents used in everyday products that cut grease, strip oil-based paint or remove stains from clothing. Common products such as nail polish remover and typewriter correction fluid contain them.

Suspected of causing cancer, VOCs are the chief contaminants found in monitoring wells next to Alpha Ridge since 1990.

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