County Still Needs To Deal With Waste

COMMENT

February 06, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from Howard County officials when the announcement was made from Baltimore that the Pulaski Highway incinerator there may be rebuilt as a regional center for solid waste disposal.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker called the news an "answer to a prayer."

"I think it would be tremendous, not only for Howard County, but for the entire region," Mr. Ecker said.

In fact, the prospect of building an environmentally safe, energy-generating incinerator has always been the light at the end of the tunnel. The question was where it would be built, since few jurisdictions were rushing to step up to the plate.

Howard may have been the most reluctant of all. Officials say they avoided proposing an incinerator because there is no easy way to sell the energy it would generate. Baltimore Gas & Electric might be one consumer, but the most cost-effective clients would be manufacturers, of which there are few in Howard.

That may be true, but the other factor that has county officials shying away from an incinerator here is the almost certain outcry such a project would evoke. There is just enough NIMBYism in Howard, not to mention fear of pollution, to inflict a quick and fatal blow to any proposal to burn trash in the county.

But that attitude does not absolve the county of its solid waste problems. Howard's landfills are polluting ground water and millions of dollars will be needed in the coming years to clean them up. The only open landfill -- Alpha Ridge -- is slated to stop accepting refuse within just two years.

Howard needs a safety net. The question is how much the county is willing to do to get some other jurisdiction to take its trash.

County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray is right to warn that Baltimore officials will expect "a quid pro quo" from Howard in return for access to a regional incinerator. But Mr. Gray is skeptical about the willingness of some in the county to share responsibility for waste management. He points to the grudging way in which county officials have lent financial assistance to cultural institutions in the city, even though county residents benefit from the many arts programs Baltimore has to offer.

Not surprisingly, city officials are more than a little bitter about the lack of support from their neighbors, especially while the city's tax base shrinks and the counties continue to grow. A reluctance to accept responsibility for regional waste disposal could prove costly to Howard.

Officials anticipate that in addition to negotiating dumping fees at a new incinerator, the city will want Howard to give it access to the county's solid waste facilities.

Possible concessions might involve the county's accepting some the city's recyclables, allowing the city to use a new county composting facility or keeping open the Alpha Ridge site for the ash a new incinerator will generate. Fortunately, both sides have ample motivation to make some concessions. County officials would like to wash their hands of an increasingly vexing problem, while city officials apparently like the idea of the new jobs that a regional incinerator would create.

Still, the outcome is going to be expensive. For the county, landfill problems have been a slap in the face. The rising cleanup costs are straining the budget. Competition for operating funds, bond issues and manpower will, for the foreseeable future, be dictated in part by the solid waste bill.

Time was when landfills were considered the easy solution. The experts swore they were safe. Decades later, though, we rue those forecasts, and the search for solutions have taken us in many directions.

Recycling offered us nirvana, but the truth is that recycling facilities are only as successful as the demand for recyclables. Unfortunately, that demand has been erratic.

Composting is an option, but it addresses only a fraction of the refuse we generate.

Even among those who support a regional incinerator, some view it as the lesser of several evils. A state-of-the-art incinerator would supposedly minimize pollution, but we have heard such promises before.

A new era of waste management lies before us. We are a tad wiser than before, but our options are far fewer.

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

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