Landfills: the trouble with trash Counties grapple with the high costs of cleaning dumps

$1 billion plus will be spent

Local officials differ on how they define, deal with pollution

October 08, 1995|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,SUN STAFF

Where new suburbs and old trash meet, there's trouble.

Throughout the Baltimore region, county landfills ooze toxic chemicals into streams and wells. The cost of cleaning these landfills -- along with the cost of future trash removal and disposal -- poses a staggering financial problem for local governments and taxpayers.

"Eventually it'll become the second most expensive item in government -- after education," warns James M. Irvin, Howard County public works director.

Statewide, it will cost $1.15 billion over the next several decades to meet regulatory requirements for Maryland's 32 public landfills, according to an April report commissioned by the state Department of the Environment.

That includes closing landfills and capping them with plastic to keep out rainwater, monitoring ground water for decades for signs of contamination and making sure counties are insured against future liability from pollution.

Already, 11 of 19 county-owned landfills in the counties around Baltimore have polluted the ground water near them. Baltimore has one operating landfill in the city's southern tip, but that landfill has not been troubled by pollution so far.

In the past three years, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Baltimore counties have begun to feel the financial sting -- with the five counties having budgeted a total of about $100 million for the cleanup and prevention of pollution at landfills.

More landfill costs are on the way, expenses for which Maryland's counties generally aren't prepared, says Richard W. Collins, director of the state's Waste Management Administration.

County governments have not taken a regional approach to landfill pollution problems. The only major regional effort in the works is a composting facility in Howard that also will serve Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.

No uniformity

Moreover, coping on their own with landfill pollution, county governments have chosen starkly different paths.

"One county may consider it to be under control, but what they may consider under control may be out of control by the standards of another county," says Donald L. Gill, a Marriottsville resident and longtime critic of Howard County's landfill record.

For example:

* In Bel Air, Harford County officials fret over the possibility that polluted ground water from a closed landfill might contaminate a nearby stream. Meanwhile, Howard officials hope a stream will carry pollutants away from residential wells near a landfill in Woodbine.

* Neighbors of another Howard landfill say the county doesn't test their wells often enough. Meanwhile, residents near dumps in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties plead for anything that resembles regular testing.

* It's costing Howard $10.5 million to pipe in water to residents -- and millions more to stop the dumping -- after a Marriottsville landfill polluted a nearby aquifer. But Anne Arundel officials rejected a proposal to bring water a short distance to landfill neighbors in Millersville.

Abating landfill pollution is only part of the headache the suburbs are facing as they churn out a mountain of trash.

The price of trash

Counties that once subsidized residential trash pickup by charging commercial trash haulers to use their dumps now expect to lose millions of dollars to huge private landfills in western Maryland and out of state. The result: higher bills for public trash pickup.

In the past four years, as it continued grappling with landfill cleanup, Anne Arundel has more than doubled its homeowners' annual trash collection fee to nearly $200 per home. Howard is considering the area's first trash pickup fees based on how much residents throw away, fees that would start at $100 a year per household next year.

Still, it's the old leaky landfills -- which must be cleaned up under federal and state regulations -- that pose the most intractable trash problems.

In 1970, for example, Anne Arundel dealt with its trash disposal needs by buying a private landfill in Glen Burnie. Now the county has to spend millions to clean up the toxic mess from the days when industrial waste was dumped there legally.

Howard's Alpha Ridge landfill, which opened in 1980, offered what was then sophisticated ground water protection -- a layer of compacted clay that was supposed to keep contaminants from escaping.

But officials and regulators now know that clay doesn't work and that new landfills must be fitted with expensive plastic liners and pipes to collect contaminated liquid for proper disposal.

In 1987, Harford was the first county in the area to adopt the plastic-liner method. Carroll and Baltimore counties followed in 1988, and since then Howard and Anne Arundel have opened similar facilities.

Although counties must comply with federal regulations on how to cap old landfills, most landfills aren't dangerous enough to warrant federal cleanup orders. That gives counties great leeway in dealing with chemicals that seep out.

Cleanup efforts vary

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