Trash means wealth, woes in rural Va. Howard is to begin shipping its waste to King George tomorrow

Millions in fees anticipated

Community scarred by bitter fight over building landfill

March 02, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

KING GEORGE, Va. -- Starting tomorrow, Howard County will begin trucking hundreds of tons of trash each day to a giant new landfill that has brought this rural community riches -- and headaches -- it has never known.

The deal is typical of the modern waste economy: Densely developed communities save money and political grief by shipping trash to huge, privately run landfills in areas with cheap, abundant land.

The trend recently came to Anne Arundel County, which began sending trash to the King George County Landfill when it opened in November. Baltimore County, Calvert County and Washington all send at least some trash to this and other out-of-state landfills.

Houston-based USA Waste opened the King George landfill over the protests of many residents, who for years battled the project, saying it would turn King George into a dumping ground.

"The process of good government just sort of got trashed, literally and figuratively, in that project," says Conway Moy of the King George Environmental Association.

King George is a county of 17,000 residents on the coastal plain wedged between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. Much like Howard County 30 years ago, it is largely rural but on the verge of rapid development as the sprawling Washington-Richmond corridor spreads east.

Economic savior

With a scant tax base and school enrollment beginning to boom, many in King George have welcomed the landfill as an economic savior.

King George officials say it could bring as much as $5.6 million a year to a county with a general fund budget of $24 million this year. Howard County, by comparison, has a general fund of $336 million.

"As a matter of fact," says Ruth Herrink, publisher of the Journal, King George's weekly newspaper, "I think our next problem is figuring out how to spend about $50 million in tax money that's coming our way."

There's no shortage of ideas: King George County officials have put together a wish list for spending a decade's worth of potential revenue -- an estimated $50 million -- that includes a new high school with fiber-optic cable, interactive television and an indoor, Olympic-size pool.

Picking up the tab would be such landfill patrons as Howard County.

Cheaper, easier

For Howard, which has limited capacity at its Alpha Ridge Landfill in Marriottsville, exporting trash is cheaper and easier than building a new landfill -- particularly at a time when the mid-Atlantic region is in the midst of a price war over trash disposal.

For years, local governments disposed of trash by building their own landfills or incinerators. They set their own rates and guaranteed a steady flow of business with laws requiring commercial haulers to bring all local trash to the government facilities.

But in 1994, the Supreme Court struck down those laws as illegal restraints of interstate trade.

Huge, highly competitive waste companies soon built giant landfills in lightly populated parts of Pennsylvania and Virginia, driving down tipping fees to the point that some local governments with new landfills or incinerators -- such as Montgomery County -- faced shrinking fees as the amount of trash being brought in declined.

Howard County -- with an aging landfill leaking toxins and no plans to build a new one -- is taking advantage of the price war by sending all residential trash to the King George landfill.

Trash transported free

Howard's shipments will total 300 tons of residential trash daily, and the landfill will charge $33 a ton, a little more than half the rate at Alpha Ridge.

Anne Arundel County is doing much the same thing, sending 300 to 600 tons a day to King George to extend the life of its landfill in Millersville, which still receives about 500 tons of residential trash a day.

As part of its deals with Howard and Anne Arundel counties, USA Waste will transport the trash from a new transfer station at Annapolis Junction -- off Route 32 on the Howard-Anne Arundel line -- to King George at no extra charge.

Browning-Ferris Industries Inc., another large waste-management company, wants to compete for Howard's trash-disposal business with a transfer station it is seeking to build in Elkridge, over the opposition of some residents. Much like USA Waste, BFI would ferry the trash out of Howard -- but not to King George.

In an attempt to raise its daily deliveries to King George to 4,000 tons a day, USA Waste also is seeking commercial business throughout the region.

For each ton of waste, King George County would get $5. If all goes as planned, that means King George County would eventually receive $5.6 million a year, perhaps enough to heal the wounds created by the battle over the landfill's construction.

"You get nothing for nothing," says King George Supervisor Joe Grzeika, who was elected to the county's governing body after the landfill was approved. "And to get this money, there was a deal made that gave up much of King George."

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