Vandals close compost facility Two-week shutdown likely after salt, sand poured into machines

Neighbors fought stench

Operators suspect sabotage by critics, but police unsure

June 20, 1996|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Vandals have done what the state could not: stop the stench at the regional compost plant on the Anne Arundel-Howard county line. But the smell generated by decaying leaves and grass clippings will return with a vengeance sometime next week.

Operations at the tri-county facility in Dorsey halted June 11 after two key pieces of equipment were damaged by rock salt and sand poured into the engine oil and hydraulic fluid.

The vandalism caused more than $40,000 in damage to machinery that empties yard waste bags and turns rows of rotting leaves and grass.

The Howard County plant will remain closed until next week while the machines are rebuilt or replaced, said James Peck, director of Maryland Environmental Service, a quasi-public corporation that runs the facility.

"This was not random acts of vandalism," said Peck, who suspects it was sabotage against a facility whose neighbors have lodged more than 200 complaints about foul odors with state environmental officials.

Howard County police, however, are not so sure. They said they have no suspects, nor do they know if the destruction is linked to community hatred of the 56-acre operation. Police have interviewed residents of the Lennox Park community, which straddles the Anne Arundel-Howard line.

When the plant resumes operations, neighbors will know it.

Stirring the rotting vegetation will release gasses that have built up after two summer weeks of not being turned, compost experts say.

Peck predicted the facility will smell and will result in a resumption of complaints.

"People can blame it on the criminals who did this," Peck said.

But he said the odor problem will be temporary. Peck said changes at the plant will include stopping work at 3: 30 p.m. instead of 6: 30 p.m. and using deodorizers.

Neighbors say that for months they have heard excuses for the odors, and while they understand the current problem, they are losing patience with MES, which has been cited 14 times this year by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

"Right now they have my sympathy more than my anger, but that won't last forever, either," said Russell Rzemien, who lives on the Anne Arundel side of the yard.

State officials decided this week to continue a policy instituted this spring of sending inspectors to the site and monitoring the smell instead of issuing violation notices. They have not decided how much more time to give MES.

The only regional venture of its kind in the state, the compost plant was supposed to be a model. Financed last summer through a $5.9 million bond issue, it takes leaves and grass clippings from Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties.

But the operation was trouble-laden before it opened. Its equipment was not ready in time for last fall's leaf season. Mountains of leaves stood three stories high. When then-operator Browning-Ferris Industries Inc. moved the heaps and created rows, odor complaints grew. MES assumed control of the daily operation, but complaints continued.

The plant's shutdown has not posed crises for the counties.

Anne Arundel County has diverted its grass clippings to Top-Pro International, a Gambrills composting business. That contract expires July 1. After that, yard waste can go to the MES facility near Upper Marlboro in Prince George's County.

Howard County is incorporating grass clippings at an operation that chops brush at the county landfill.

Baltimore County is using two local composting yards, said Charles Weiss, chief of Baltimore county's bureau of solid waste management.

Pub Date: 6/20/96

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