Howard County's landfill problems are producing a mountain of bills at a time when the county is increasingly strapped for cash. These competing forces threaten to shape the social and political agenda in the county in profound ways into the next century.
While the costs of landfill cleanup continue to rise, officials continue to take on additional tasks as residents demand a government response. Last week, officials agreed to export nearly 4,000 tons of contaminated soil from the county's Carrs Mill landfill at a cost that may exceed $1 million.
But that is a drop in the bucket compared to the commitments the county has already made. During the past two years, the county has agreed to fund clean-up programs at each of its three landfill sites, all of which have exhibited signs of ground water contamination.
The various efforts to cap the landfills, remove polluted soil, and pump and treat the water supply are expected to cost $25 million. An additional $30,000 will go to provide public water for the residents surrounding the New Cut Road landfill, while the council debates whether to spend close to $1.4 million to provide public water hookups near Alpha Ridge. The pipes and pumping station for that project already carry a $10 million price tag.
Aside from all these efforts, the county is faced with the astronomical costs associated with exporting its trash out of the area until -- and if -- a regional solution to waste disposal can be developed.
The enormity of this burden can never excuse officials from their obligation to protect public health and find alternatives to the county's current waste disposal system. Nevertheless, the size of the problem underscores the need for fundamental change, beginning with an honest public dialogue about its scope.
County Executive Charles I. Ecker may have begun the process last week when he reported to the County Council on Howard's dire financial future.
By the year 2000, he said, the county will experience a $5 million structural deficit -- that is, a shortfall between income and expenditures that will have to be made up to balance the budget. Given these pressures, options such as a per-bag charge for trash pickup are probably inevitable.