Toxic waste mystery solved

October 02, 1994|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

After hundreds of drums of toxic waste were discovered in a rural Howard County landfill last fall, baffled county officials said they didn't have a clue where they came from. It turns out, however, that county officials didn't have to look very far to solve their mystery.

County investigators have found that a former county supervisor allowed many of the 860 drums to be dumped at the county's Carr's Mill Landfill in Woodbine in 1976.

They also turned up evidence of other incidents of illegal dumping there in the mid-1970s in which other county employees may have been involved.

Moreover, state and county officials knew about some of the buried drums as early as 1976, but county officials later forgot about them.

Then, instead of announcing those findings, county lawyers asked the state last fall to withhold from the public state records about the dumped drums.

The dumped drums were rediscovered at Carr's Mill in September 1993. The drums and contaminated soil are being removed from the landfill. Treatment of ground water at the site is expected to take decades.

County officials didn't want the state to release county files on the dumped drums because the records might help the companies that originally owned the drums defend themselves against any attempt by the county to require them to pay some of the $1.8 million cleanup cost.

The state kept its records about the drums out of the public's hands until an Eastern Shore attorney for one of the companies forced the state to let him see the records over the summer. The county finally told nearby residents about the drums' history last month.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker acknowledged last week that county officials had traced the history of the drums, and the county's prior knowledge of them, as early as last fall.

"We felt that the information should be treated in a confidential manner because we did not know where the investigation was going to go," Mr. Ecker said. The county eventually released the information last month "to set the record straight," he said.

That county and state officials knew 18 years ago that the drums were buried at the landfill infuriates Susan M. Miller, an attorney whose home is across Carr's Mill Road from the dump site. Her front yard includes part of Cattail Creek, which has been polluted by solvents from the drums.

People buying property in the area and seeking permits to install residential wells never were told about the potential hazard, Ms. Miller said.

"The county has been disingenuous at best in dealing with the public," she said. "They weren't acting in the public interest. They had a responsibility to notify anyone building in the vicinity of the landfill that they had a problem, and they didn't."

Toxic wastes leading from the drums have not affected nearby residents' well water, according to county tests and independent tests commissioned by Ms. Miller. But other tests on ground water below the dump site show high levels of trichloroethene, an industrial grease cutter known as TCE, and other solvents.

County officials say their records concerning the dumped drums are sketchy, but state records indicate that the rediscovery of the drums last fall should not have caused a mystery.

State documents reveal that:

* On July 8, 1976, county police caught employees from a waste-hauling company, F.P.R. Bohager & Sons Inc., dumping 101 drums of industrial waste at the landfill. A landfill supervisor, Francis "Sonny" Bohager, now dead, was related to the owner of the trash company.

Bohager employees said the drums came from Western Electric Co. and the Farboil Paint Co. in Baltimore, two of 16 companies identified by markings found recently on the drums.

* A month later, the state cited the county for violating state pollution laws at Carr's Mills by accepting drums "filled with unknown chemicals." The citation noted that although the drums found July 8 had been removed, an unspecified number remained at the site.

* In fall 1976, the state permitted the county to remove any visible drums but told it to cover buried drums with clay to prevent rainwater from reaching them. The next summer, the landfill was closed.

* In 1986, the landfill was added to a list of sites that might be regulated under federal hazardous-waste cleanup laws. State inspectors noted that the site "has received industrial

wastes, such as paint wastes, solvents, etc.," a state memo says.

* In the late 1980s, the state tested ground water at the site as part of a statewide program to assess pollution from landfills. The Carr's Mill site showed levels of TCE five times higher than the federal drinking water standard. Levels of the solvent in nearby Cattail Creek were just above the standard.

"The administration is concerned that ground water contamination at this facility has a potential to present significant risks to human health and the environment," Barry J. Schmidt, chief of the state Solid Waste Enforcement Division, wrote in a 1988 letter to the county.

James M. Irvin, Howard County's public works director, confirmed last week that the county did not notify nearby residents of the test results at that time.

"There was a follow-up discussion with the state, and the [contamination] was judged to be relatively low" and restricted to the landfill, he said.

As for the 1976 dumping incident, county officials say they couldn't immediately recall it because their records are sketchy: a single, three-page memo, hand-written in 1979, three years after the incident.

The illegal dumping did not lead to a legal action. Other county records relating to it were lost when the county public works department was reorganized in 1977, according to the 1979 memo.

The dumping incident "was considered a big deal at the time, but it was taken care of," Mr. Irvin said. "The county satisfied its obligations."

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