County Does Wrong Alpha Ridgers

COMMENT

December 19, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS

I would be howling mad if I lived near the Alpha Ridge Landfill in Marriottsville.

Do the nightmares ever cease for these people? First, they had to contend with the fact that seepage from the landfill has contaminated nearby ground water with known carcinogens. Then, for months, there's been the torture of waiting to see if the contamination has infected residential wells.

And now, Howard County officials have told residents they will be responsible for paying to have their homes hooked up to the public water and sewer system -- at a cost running into tens of thousands of dollars.

It's no wonder to me that the residents, who include about 400 households, have slipped over the edge. Is this any different than a robber holding a gun to their heads and demanding all their money? There certainly isn't much free choice involved here.

County officials are playing a very cagey game.

Let's call it the Liability Lie Detective Series.

The object is to figure out when the county is accepting its responsibility to protect the health and safety of county residents, and when it's doing the barest minimum to protect itself from possible legal exposure in the future.

What makes this game so frustrating is that while practically anyone can tell the difference between the two choices, the county makes little distinction at all. You can't win this game because even when you think you've caught the county government red-handed, officials throw in some technicalities or simply change the rules.

Consider the evidence: Residents living near another county landfill off New Cut Road, where wells were found to be contaminated, were recently provided water treatment systems at county expense.

That's a temporary solution. Once the public water main nTC becomes available, the county has agreed to assist the New Cut Road residents in paying for their hook-ups.

But at Alpha Ridge, where there is no evidence of well contamination thus far, county officials have agreed only to install the water main that runs along the roadway in front of the residences.

They refuse to install the hook-ups between the water main and the houses. That means residents will have to pay a contractor to provide the hook-ups at a cost of about $10,000 for every 1,000 feet of pipe. Given that many of the homes sit on several acres, costs of $20,000 to $30,000 are not out of the question.

Why did the New Cut Road residents get a break and the folks near Alpha Ridge did not? Because, officials say, the New Cut Road residents can prove damages; the Alpha Ridge residents can't.

"You can't just give [people] a blank check, unless there have been some damages," said James M. Irvin, county public works director, expressing the administration's position.

A suit pending in Howard Circuit Court might ultimately prove officials wrong, however.

Clyde and Shirley Pendleton, owners of 156 acres adjacent to Alpha Ridge, are suing the county for $2.6 million in damages in the form of lost property value because of the nearby landfill.

The county's legal beagles say that unless specific contamination has been proven, the Pendletons don't have a case.

But I wonder whether they've suffered damages just by virtue of the fact that contamination is a possibility at any time, whether it has occurred yet or not. After all, who wants to buy property that might become a Superfund site one day?

There are, of course, arguments that work against the Alpha Ridge residents -- the most insidious being the question why anyone would buy property near a landfill in the first place.

This, of course, assumes that they didn't buy the land prior to the landfill's inception, or that they had compelling reason to believe that the landfill wasn't safe, evidence of which has only surfaced recently.

Absent a mistake on the part of residents, the county, it seems, is simply punishing people for buying property in good faith.

Another argument suggests that since households that are not on wells pay for public water and sewer hook-ups as part of the price of their homes, Alpha Ridge residents should have to do the same. The difference is that the residents near Alpha Ridge bought their homes expecting their water to come from wells. They are hardly to be blamed for being forced to consider public utilities now.

After Alpha Ridge residents hit the ceiling over news that they would have to pay for hook-ups, County Executive Charles I. Ecker said he was willing to negotiate a settlement with them.

In other words, having scared the stuffing out of them, let's see how willing they'll be to accept whatever little concession we throw their way.

County officials really need to come clean here and accept their full responsibility.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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