Visitors to the Harford County Farm Fair last weekend were treated to the usual popular attractions, the agricultural and homemaking exhibits by 600 youngsters and the array of duck, pig, goat and monkey races that keeps the crowds coming back.
Entering the Equestrian Center fairgrounds, fair-goers also got a look at a familiar landmark nearby -- the old Tollgate Landfill.
Seven years after it was closed, work is finally scheduled to begin this fall on capping the 60-acre Tollgate dump to prevent polluted water from seeping from its trash cavities to nearby water supplies.
Extraction wells will be installed to treat Tollgate's contaminated water, which has already migrated toward Winters Run. A network of methane gas collection pipes is already in place, at a cost of $2 million, to vent the gas above ground for burning.
Tollgate is an example, although by no means one of the worst, of the dangers posed by the trash we once threw into the ground and covered up without a second thought: Out of sight, out of mind. That was the philosophy for most of the 33 years that Tollgate operated as the county's central landfill. (The town of Bel Air originally opened the landfill, turning it over to the county in 1954.)
It also shows how the cost of safely containing our refuse is a lot higher than we once calculated. As it prepared to stop accepting trash in 1987, the estimated closing cost was about $4 million. Last month, the Harford County government put out bids for capping the dump and installing treatment wells at a projected price tag of $9 million. (Not including the $2 million gas pipe system.)
That's a good deal more than the rate of inflation. It reflects the exceptional measures now required to contain and monitor the potential pollution from these unlined and uncapped dumps.
When Tollgate opened, there was not the slightest idea that it would eventually cost much to close it.
The county Public Works Department has already installed an aeration system to clean contaminated water in the pond of Heavenly Waters Park, next to the Equestrian Center, and put charcoal filters on the well-water supplies of drinking water to the park.
That action was taken after trichloroethylene (TCE), a suspected cancer-causing solvent once commonly used as a degreaser and paint thinner, was found in the park's pond two years ago.
Although the chemical concentration was just above the limit set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water, the county fenced off the pond and promptly put in the aeration system to spray the water into the air, quickly evaporating the toxic chemical, which does not bond with water.
That double-barreled decontamination system has reduced the TCE levels to within safety limits at the park and pond, although there is considerable cause for concern about future pollution from Tollgate.
Monitoring wells, installed across Tollgate Road from the landfill to detect possible flow of pollutants downhill toward the park, have registered concentrations of TCE as high as 500 to 600 parts per billion on the landfill site itself. That's about 100 times higher than the EPA safe drinking water standard; there is no safety limit for raw water.
The contaminated ground water at the dump is moving southward toward the park and Winters Run. It could reach the stream within four years, unless it is intercepted and treated, the county warns.
There is no present danger to public health at the park or nearby communities, officials emphasize.
The cap and wells are planned to be in place by next year; covered over with vegetation, the site is scheduled to become part of Heavenly Waters Park in another year or so.
Capping the landfill calls for layers of soil, sand and dust and a synthetic membrane over the surface, which is then planted with vTC grass, to prevent rainwater from seeping into the 30-foot-deep pockets of garbage and trash where the TCE was also dumped. The entire location is graded to slope away from the center and direct uncontaminated surface runoff to adjacent sediment control ponds and the surrounding streams.
The monitoring and extraction wells are planned to operate for at least 20 years, such is the long-term threat of potential seepage into ground water.
Tollgate's closure was delayed for several years as the county anguished over finding another site. The decision to close in 1987 was made possible by opening the county's Scarboro dump and the start-up of the incinerator in Magnolia.
Some folks don't believe Harford County will ever approve another landfill, public or private, because of the uncertainties of environmental harm even with modern design. Certainly, the mood of voters in the 1990 election was to stop the spread of landfills, which engaged the government in a series of legal conflicts with dump owners and developers.
At last count, some three dozen old landfills were scattered about the county. One is the old Scarboro dump, next to the current county facility. Just what is buried in them, and the potential pollution danger, is unknown in most cases. A couple are part of the federal Superfund toxic waste cleanup program. Some have been investigated by state authorities and have taken remedial steps. Others are still under study.
Waste is costly, a lesson we should have learned from our mothers, and from Mother Nature.
Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.