Howard's Dirty Little Secrets

October 06, 1994

Howard County officials may have their justifications for trying to keep secret what they knew about illegal dumping of toxic waste at the Carr's Mill landfill. But they will have difficulty convincing a lot of county residents of that, given the mistrust already generated by this volatile situation.

Officials apparently knew the source of at least some of the 860 drums filled with contaminants at the Woodbine facility as early as 1976. But for reasons not yet fully explained, the existence and source of the drums never became public knowledge until recently.

County records on the dumping apparently were lost during a reorganization of the Public Works office. But when county officials renewed an investigation of the landfill late last year, they still sought to keep hidden their findings.

Much of the evidence, it turned out, lay in state public records. County officials, however, asked that state officials not release those records while their investigation was continuing. The state eventually did release the information, but only after it was requested by an attorney representing one of the companies implicated in the dumping.

It was at that time that county officials chose to notify residents surrounding Carr's Mill of their findings thus far.

The official reason for keeping quiet, according to officials, was that releasing the documents might compromise the county probe. But the secrecy surrounding this matter seems to go beyond a desire to protect potential litigation.

The revelations in the state records were embarrassing. Not only had the state identified the source of some of the drums 18 years ago, but by 1988 a ranking state solid waste official had warned the county about hazards from the contamination.

"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 the county. And still, Howard officials took no steps to notify nearby residents.

Finding the culprits responsible for this illegal dumping is a necessary pursuit. But the county itself must face up to its own culpability in allowing this threat -- and then keeping it secret so long.

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