The giant sucking sound you hear is Maryland's garbage heading south -- and north.
Hundreds of thousands of tons of trash, once destined for municipal landfills in Baltimore's suburbs, are instead being trucked to one of several new, privately held "mega-landfills" in rural Virginia and Pennsylvania.
The emergence of these new disposal sites has cost some counties millions of dollars as commercial haulers who once paid to dump waste at publicly owned landfills now take it elsewhere.
But that may not be a bad thing, say solid waste officials in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties. Although the trend means residents may have to foot more of the costs of trash disposal bills, it also helps extend the life of the local landfills.
This spring, Baltimore County started sending its residential garbage to a site in York, Pa., to extend the life of the publicly owned Eastern landfill in White Marsh by up to 10 years.
Officials in Howard and Anne Arundel said their counties could soon follow suit.
"The longer the hole lasts, the longer you can put off the replacement costs," said John Brusnighan, director of public works for Anne Arundel County.
Only a few years ago, Anne Arundel officials thought they would have to build a new landfill -- a costly and politically contentious prospect -- by 2000 as the Millersville site filled up.
Similar problems confounded political leaders up and down the East Coast, prodding Maryland and other states to turn to recycling and other alternatives.
As recently as 1993, Baltimore and five metropolitan counties signed a pact to build their own regional facilities, including a yard waste composting plant set to open in Howard County in the fall, to deal with the impending shortage of landfills.
The problem did not go unnoticed by the private sector.
Companies began to build and license huge landfills in remote rural areas of neighboring states. More than a half-dozen private disposal sites have been proposed or licensed in Virginia since 1990.
Garnet Inc., which hopes to open a 628-acre disposal site this winter near Fredericksburg, Va., formed in 1988 specifically in response to a shortage of landfill space.
"There was a need to do it," said Blake Van Leer II, vice president of the firm. "The market share was there."
Mr. Van Leer's company recently proposed building a transfer station between Jessup and Laurel.
Browning-Ferris Industries, the nation's largest disposal company, has opened two regional landfills in Virginia and three more in Pennsylvania.
"That fear of diminishing capacity was the reason these facilities were permitted," said Hugh Dillingham, BFI's senior vice president for recycling and disposal programs. "That phenomenon is happening all over the country. It's not unique to this area."
The turnaround in Baltimore has come suddenly as the companies have begun to acquire the transfer stations, or collection points, they need to ship wastes to their remote sites.
Waste Management Inc., which operates a regional landfill outside York, got the early jump last year when it acquired transfer stations in Halethorpe and Timonium through a lease agreement with Baltimore County.
"What you're seeing are the transfer stations being built and that waste starting to move," Mr. Dillingham said. "Quite frankly, that phenomenon won't stop anytime soon."
John J. O'Hara, Howard County's chief of solid waste disposal, predicted the impact will be substantial.
The competition has triggered a price war, forcing down the tipping, or gate, fees charged to dump at the landfills. Where Anne Arundel and Howard counties charge $60 a ton, the companies are charging $30 to $35 a ton, Mr. O'Hara said.
"What has happened is, not only has all this new capacity become available at the same time, the amount of garbage being generated has stagnated with the economy," Mr. O'Hara said. "We're not making as much trash."
Tom Andrews, Anne Arundel County's land-use and environment officer, offers a simpler explanation: "You have competing 'mega-holes' and the cost has hit rock bottom."
The lower fees have lured commercial haulers -- and the revenues they generated -- away from municipal landfills.
James Pittman, chief of Anne Arundel's solid waste division, said the commercial tonnage dumped at Millersville has dropped 66 percent since January 1994, about the same time transfer stations began appearing in Washington. The drop forced the county last month to boost the fee residents pay for curbside pickup to $198 annually.
Howard County has seen a similar decline. Mr. O'Hara said fees paid by commercial haulers at the Alpha Ridge Landfill are plummetting and BFI has yet to open its new transfer station in Elkridge.
When that opens later this year, Mr. O'Hara said he expects the revenue at Alpha Ridge to drop from the $4.1 million last year to $300,000 in fiscal year 1997.
The private landfills "are like little sinkholes," Mr. Pittman said. "Now the owners have to fill these things up."