Landfill Scavenging and Dirty Dancing

COMMENT

May 15, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

For months, Carroll County's three commissioners have known that some real dirty business has been taking place at the county's two landfills, but they have been dancing around the problem rather than confronting it.

In a word, the problem is recycling. But it is not the recycling of yard waste, bottles or paper. This problem involves scavenging metals such as aluminum, copper and brass as well as usable building materials and other odds and ends that can be sold at yard sales or auctions.

The scavengers are not Carroll residents who drop off their garbage at the landfills, but a group of landfill employees who have allegedly used their positions to take property that isn't theirs.

4 People who do this are usually known as thieves.

Three men have been charged with theft and are awaiting trial, and three others have been reprimanded for allegedly stealing material from the landfills, but internal reports and investigations uncovered widespread scavenging from the landfill over a long period of time by employees who knew better.

These investigations reveal that material worth almost $90,000 was stolen from the county over a three-year period. Also, that the management of the landfill was so lax that other employees who knew of the thievery were scared into silence by the men doing the stealing.

This has all been brought to the attention of the commissioners and Carroll's state's attorney. Yet, instead of a complete overall of landfill operations, the commissioners have basically allowed the status quo to continue and even went so far as to suggest that maybe scavenging at the landfill should be allowed.

Maybe the commissioners do not feel the sense of urgency they would if the allegations involved the embezzlement of tax collections, but it is remarkable that in a county where supposedly every dollar spent is carefully scrutinized, the possible annual loss of material worth $30,000 or more isn't being taken more seriously.

The magnitude of the problem at the landfill first came to light last June when the county auditor received a report outlining a lengthy pattern of illegal scavenging by some county employees. The report alleged that at least half of the men who operate the bulldozers at the landfill were scavenging recyclable material dumped at the Hoods Mills and Northern landfills and selling it to recyclers.

The men, according to the report, would take metal that haulers and residents dropped off, put it aside and then place it on their own trucks. The report noted that each of the operators jealously guarded their stash and often there were fights over the %J scavenged material.

Often, the report noted, these employees would leave their jobs an hour or two early so they could sell their scavenged metal to dealers in Gettysburg and Hanover, Pa.

Under county law, once garbage is placed on the curb for collection, it becomes county property. That means that each time these men grabbed some discarded aluminum siding, stripped copper from a refrigerator or took discarded doors and windows to an auction house, they were breaking the law.

The money these men were making was more than pocket change.

The auditors' office examined check stubs from two Pennsylvania recyclers and found that one of the landfill employees had been paid $22,000 over a three-year period for scrap metal he had brought to these businesses. Others had pocketed amounts ranging from $19,500 to $75.

The report noted that some of the employees allegedly boasted that they had been able to pay for an addition to their houses with their earnings from scavenging; others used this extra money to make their monthly car payments.

Female employees apparently were intimidated into silence, according to the report. One told the investigator that she had filed a number of complaints about the harassment but there had never been any follow-up.

Last November, five months after receiving the report, the state police set up a sting operation at the landfills. They placed a pile of copper tubing, which was marked, at the Hoods Mill landfill.

The police then watched as three men loaded the truck with the marked tubing and observed a pickup truck leaving the landfill. A few miles away, the police stopped the truck and found the marked copper. They arrested the three men, who were to be tried earlier this year but had their trials postponed.

The winks, nods and nudges that followed this case are rather surprising. Contrary to conventional wisdom, this was not a harmless infraction. The county ordinance prohibiting scavenging has been on the books for years and the employees all had to sign statements they understood scavenging was against the law.

Why the state's attorney's office, which zealously prosecutes people for passing bad checks for less than $100, did not begin a broader investigation when it was presented with considerable evidence of wrongdoing is quite puzzling.

The county has a contract to sell all metal recovered from the landfill for $8.50 a ton to United Iron and Metal, a Baltimore scrap metal dealer. It appears that because of poor management, the county is not maximizing the return it could derive from its metal recovery operations.

Enterprising county employees have certainly demonstrated that.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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