Lab reports false well findings

September 06, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

Howard County has fired the laboratory it used to analyze water samples collected from residential wells near Alpha Ridge landfill in Marriottsville after the firm reported findings that later were proved to be false.

According to Howard County documents released last week, Spectralytix of Gaithersburg told government officials Aug. 11 that the contaminant toluene, a suspected cause of cancer, was discovered July 28 in two residential wells near the landfill, which is about two miles south of the Carroll-Howard line.

The report -- later found to be false -- appeared to confirm residents' worst fears: that contrary to expert predictions, cancer-causing contaminants found in test wells of the ground water at the landfill had spread to homes beyond the landfill, and with alarming speed.

But Howard County officials were not quite so surprised by the report of residential contamination because the county had received false reports from the lab several months earlier. Officials felt the August findings might also be in error and asked the lab to confirm them immediately.

In the meantime, officials informed residents of the lab findings, gave them each 20 gallons of bottled water, took new samples from the wells and told residents they suspected the Spectralytix findings were false.

Evelyn Tomlin, Howard County environmental manager, said Spectralytix initially told her there was "no problem" when she asked for a confirmation of the report.

Ms. Tomlin asked for a reanalysis after getting the results Aug. 11. The next day, Spectralytix told her the laboratory had indeed made an error.

The reanalysis showed no contaminants in the residential wells.

The laboratory said the error had occurred because its testing equipment had not been purged of the residue from heavily contaminated samples from other sources that it had tested earlier.

The laboratory sent Ms. Tomlin two letters Aug. 15 telling her that Howard County would not be charged for the retesting and that Spectralytix project managers were sorry for "any inconvenience this error may have caused."

Howard County asked both Spectralytix and a second laboratory to sample the wells every two days until Aug. 19, when the county fired Spectralytix and signed a temporary contract with the other laboratory.

Howard County is continuing to conduct "extensive additional tests" of the residential wells with the new laboratory and is taking duplicate samples, Ms. Tomlin said. She said the temporary laboratory will analyze samples until the county awards a new contract through its bidding process.

Howard County had warned Spectralytix in a May 6 letter that inaccurate tests results could lead to termination of the contract.

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