Landfill cleanup may identify sources of waste

January 20, 1994|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

A contractor cleaning up illegally dumped drums filled with hazardous waste at the Carrs Mill Landfill has discovered evidence that county investigators believe will help identify sources of the drums.

"Some of the drums have markings," said Rebecca A. Laws, senior assistant county solicitor. "To the extent that those markings apparently identify companies, we are notifying the company."

Since Oct. 14, cleanup workers have removed more than 500 buried 55-gallon drums from the ground. About half are believed to contain varying quantities of cancer-causing solvents. The other half are damaged and empty.

In recent weeks, work by contractor Clean Venture Inc. of Linthicum has shifted from digging up the drums to shipping them off to out-of-state facilities licensed to dispose of the waste, most likely by burning it.

As the cleanup continues, county authorities have contacted companies believed to be sources of the chemicals in hopes of receiving financial help in the cleanup.

If Howard County can establish that a company was a source of the waste at Carrs Mill, the county could sue to force the firm to help pay for cleanup. Under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, sources of contamination can be made to pay even if their methods of disposal were considered proper at the time, she said.

In the case of Carrs Mill, county officials have said, it is clear that whoever dumped the drums 15 to 20 years ago may have violated environmental laws of the time. Officials are concentrating their efforts on recouping some of the cleanup's cost rather than criminal prosecution, however.

Well over $700,000 has been spent on the cleanup, and the effort continues to cost the county about $40,000 a week.

Information about the investigation, such as the nature of the evidence or the firms that have been identified, are being withheld to avoid compromising the probe, Ms. Laws said.

Releasing information could, for example, taint statements given to investigators. "It might call into question whether the recollections that they give us is in fact something that people recalled, or something they read or something they heard," Ms. Laws said.

Help from residents is important because it is difficult to locate witnesses after so many years, Ms. Laws said.

"Keep in mind that this is 15 or 20 years old -- the area was not heavily populated at that time. And many of the people who lived there then are not there now."

More information on the contamination and cleanup will be available at a community meeting tonight at 7:30 at the Lisbon Fire Hall.

At the first community meeting, on Dec. 18, landfill neighbors told County Executive Charles I. Ecker that more needed to be done to prevent their exposure to chemicals that have polluted a stream and underground aquifers.

Some residents said they could smell fumes on their property, and asked whether such concentrations in the air could harm them. They also called for more frequent and more accurate testing of residential wells and air quality.

Tonight's meeting is intended to address such concerns. Mr. Ecker, directors of the county health and public works departments, and representatives from two environmental consulting firms will be present to answer questions.

Of the drums dug up so far, about 50 were full. Test results show the contents of most drums to be trichloroethylene, known as TCE. TCE has been listed as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because it has caused cancer in laboratory animals.

Virginia-based GeoTrans Inc., a ground-water contamination consulting firm, is conducting a study of contamination in all three of the county's landfills. It was during soil-gas testing at Carrs Mill last fall that workers from GeoTrans and the county discovered a major source of hazardous vapors.

That in turn led them to discover two empty drums in dense foliage on a hill near the landfill's legitimate fill area. The other drums were buried at that spot and another site at the crest of the hill.

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