Howard officials buy house next to landfill

April 17, 1995|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

It happens whenever there's heavy rain or snow: Kelly Snovell's Ellicott City basement floods. Not with water, but with explosive methane.

The gas is a byproduct of the slow rotting of 34 years' worth of Howard County garbage buried just a fence-post away from his acre of land off New Cut Road.

Thanks to the county's agreement to buy Mr. Snovell's property April 3, he and his family are escaping the land he bought 19 years ago and moving to a similar home they are building near Sykesville.

County officials paid Mr. Snovell and his wife, Deborah, $290,000 -- $30,000 of that for the trouble of having to relocate. The county also is negotiating to buy the house and 3 1/4 -acre lot of the Snovells' neighbors, Frank and Melissa Wallace.

The purchase of the Snovells' home represents the first time the county has bought out a landfill neighbor as a result of its effort to clean up the county's three garbage dumps.

The main reason for buying it, said county Public Works Director James M. Irvin, was that the county needed a significant portion of both neighboring properties for the plastic-and-earth cap that will cover the old dump. The cap will prevent water from percolating into the trash and further polluting ground water below the buried garbage.

Mr. Irvin said construction on the landfill cap would probably begin in a year.

Another reason for the buyout was the methane danger, a risk considered so great that county officials installed an alarm system to warn the Snovells when levels were hazardous.

"We left for a weekend not too long ago," Mr. Snovell said. "The alarm went off, and the fire marshal, he said that unless there was a system installed to get rid of the methane, I would have to leave."

Since then, the county installed a humming silver metal box to the side of their house that continually pumps out the gas.

Methane isn't the Snovells' only landfill-generated problem. Their well is about 220 feet from a monitoring well on the landfill property that showed 28 varieties of contaminants, including dangerous levels of acetone, benzene, butanone, dichloroethene, toluene and trichloroethene.

Only one of the compounds found in the monitoring well, dichloroethene, has been found in a trace amount in the Snovells' well. Their well water is undrinkable unless it's run through a charcoal treatment system in their basement that removes the cancer-causing solvents.

But the well problems played no part in the county's decision to buy the house, Mr. Irvin said.

Several other homes in the area have contaminated wells and have had either a filtration system installed or bottled water provided by the county. Last year the wooded stretch of New Cut Road was also equipped with water mains, which the county hooked up to homes with tainted wells.

After living with the uncertainty of tainted water, of methane gas and of the prospect of selling his property at a considerable loss, Mr. Snovell said he's relieved to have come to an agreement with the county. "I feel that they did the right thing, and I feel that they saved the taxpayers money" by choosing negotiation rather than a court battle, he said.

He said he and his wife did considerable soul-searching before deciding to go directly to county officials, rather than work through environmental lawyers who urged them to file a lawsuit.

In May 1994, county officials told area residents the county couldn't afford to buy homes from residents whose property values had fallen because of the landfill, which closed in 1981.

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