Let Landfills Be Lessons

November 04, 1993

As more barrels of toxic substances are unearthed from a Howard County landfill, the legacy of ignorance and shortsightedness swells.

The latest nightmare came with the recent discovery of 11 more large drums of toxics at the county's Carrs Mill Landfill. That brings to 161 the number of containers found at the landfill, further compounding the cleanup.

Efforts have been launched to determine how the drums were dumped and by whom. But assigning blame will do little to solve the enormous problem that confronts county officials.

All three of Howard County's now-closed landfills have shown evidence of leakage, with carcinogens seeping into soil and ground water.

The severity of contamination at the Howard County Alpha Ridge Landfill has already prompted local officials to promise costly hook-ups to public sewer and water for surrounding residents, although no contamination has been detected yet in residential wells.

Some contamination has been found in residential wells around the New Cut Road Landfill, triggering similar moves to provide public sewer and water to about five homes.

These are stop-gap measures, though. There is much more to be done and the price tag for the cleanup is immense.

Officials estimate that it could cost $20 million to correct the landfill problems, although the final dollar amount could see-saw in either direction. The money will be used to cap the sites, and to put in place one of several procedures to halt further leakage, most likely a program known as "pump and treat."

Howard County's only operating landfill is supposedly safer because it has a heavy-duty plastic liner designed to keep contaminates from seeping into the soil. But if history is a guide, today's "state-of-the-art" innovation is often tomorrow's obsolete technology. Wariness should be the watchword regarding any landfill.

These problems underscore the critical need for the jurisdictions in the Baltimore metropolis to develop a regional solution to solid waste disposal. Efforts are underway to develop such a plan, though it is in its infancy. The first step may be to launch a public awareness program that clearly outlines the problem and possible solutions. The landfill dilemma in Howard County is certainly making residents more aware of the consequences of complacency about solid waste.

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