Cool Approach to a Smoldering Issue

March 09, 1994

Anne Arundel County residents are on the cusp of a controversy that will make all the yelling and screaming over a new county jail seem almost civil -- what to do with trash once the Millersville landfill is filled.

An incinerator is one idea the county is considering. To understand how explosive that issue is, note that backers of an incinerator in Lancaster County, Pa., received death threats while looking for a site.

In Anne Arundel, a full 16 months before the county's self-imposed deadline for a decision, the rhetoric is starting to heat up. Most of the fire is coming from those who want to kill incineration from the get-go. They are well prepared, as they proved at a recent "trash workshop." The conclusion one could draw from the workshop: an incinerator would turn us all into disease-ridden mutants in short order.

But citizens should be careful about aligning themselves on either side of the debate at this early stage. Hard-core opponents and supporters of incineration will put their own spin on the issue.

It is going to take time and work to sift through the exaggerations and half-truths, to become sufficiently informed about the real benefits and shortcomings of incinerators, landfills and recycling operations. The county's current position is open, as it gathers information -- a sensible stance the public ought to imitate.

In the months ahead, citizens and Anne Arundel County officials should be asking questions such as:

* Has anyone quantified the risk posed by incinerator emissions? How many particles of dioxin or mercury do we have to breathe to see damage? And what is an acceptable risk?

* If, as environmentalists contend, close to 80 percent of trash can be recycled and composted, is there a market for the product?

* How does the cost of incineration compare with landfilling, the other option for handling non-recyclable trash?

* How can Anne Arundel County work with neighboring jurisdictions (they are all facing the same environmental problems) to save money and share the pain?

Next to preserving the public schools, solid waste disposal may be the most critical, expensive and emotional issue facing Anne Arundel County. Without cool heads and open minds, it could also be the ugliest.

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